How long will it take to get to partner?

It’s a question that most junior members of a firm want to ask: “How long to make partner?”  Therefore, in this post, I give you my insights on how long, why it’s got longer, and what you can do to get there faster.

How long to make partner?

Well, of course – it depends! If you are in a large firm, such as KPMG, PwC, Deloitte, EY, BDO, Grant Thornton or any of the Magic Circle firms then there is usually a prescribed partnership path to follow. If you are in a small firm, things may be very different. For example, Carl Reader, now owner of Dennis & Turnbull, was offered partnership at the tender age of 27.

?I’m currently coaching some new partners from a top 30 accounting firm in the UK. They have made partner at the tender age of ~30, which means it has taken them less than 10 years to make partner. Although the high flyers we support to get to partner from the top 10 firms tend to be in their mid-30s.

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How to make partner and still have a life
How to make partner and still have a life

It is getting harder to make partner

When I started working for BDO in 2004, there were people who had made partner before they were 30. However, even then they were unusual. Now, with shrinking partner numbers and new partners needing to have proved their business development expertise, the time to get to partner is much longer. Ten years ago you still could have got onto the first rungs of the partnership with unproven business development expertise. Now, I don’t think that is true.

It is getting longer to enjoy the real rewards of making partner

With firms finding it harder to earn a profit, the amount to distribute among partners at the end of the year is shrinking. As a result many firms have cut their partner numbers,  so the PEP (profit per equity partner) remains high. As a result, partnerships are very wary of admitting new partners and junior partners wait longer and longer for an equity stake. For example, PwC in the US have introduced something called ‘the grid’. New partners into the firm are paid as a salaried partner, and are given five years to prove that they can build a partner-sized client portfolio and can lead and manage their part of the practice.  Only then can they move up the grid and earn equity.

?The other thing to be aware of, some of the Big 4 firms have different kinds of partners AND different routes to get there. For example one of our Big 4 clients was knocked back going through her partnership admission process to get to fixed share equity partner because her partners thought her business case was strong enough to go down the full equity partner route. So they asked our client to reapply the next year and go down the route to full equity partner status.

How about the Big 4? How long to make partner at a Big 4??

In the early 2000s, if you made partner within eight years of joining as a trainee in a Big 4 firm (by which I mean PwC, Deloitte, EY or KPMG) you were doing very well. Let’s do the maths on that. It normally takes people three years to get qualified. Then a couple of years to get to manager . . .  so, getting to partner in under eight years is a big ask! Most partners in these large firms have taken 10-15 years to make it to partner.

Is there any way to speed up the time it takes to make partner?

There are not any shortcuts, but that doesn’t mean you have to take the long route either! The following approaches will all help you stay on the most direct path to partnership in any firm.

  • Be geographically mobile so you can follow the opportunities.
  • Choose a functional or sector specialism where there is predicted future growth for these skills. Or select an ageing partner population with few obvious successors.

?At the start of this article, I set out to answer the question “how long to make partner?”. That question, “how long to make partner” is impossible to answer without knowing your personal circumstances, particularly what type of firm you are at and their criteria for partnership.

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