How to make partner’ is a question that is on the lips of the most career-minded individuals and it is a valid one as there is no single, clear route to get there. In fact, there are four different routes to partnership and we explore them all in this article.

There are 4 different routes if you are thinking about how to make partner 

The route you take to ascend the top of your professional tree will vary hugely depending on the type of firm you work for and your own individual experience. There are, however, four main routes to partnership; as follows:

  1. The Traditional Route – you work your way up from trainee to partner within the same firm.
  2. The Lateral Route – you change firm(s) to make partner.
  3. The In-house Route – you leave private practice and go into industry (in-house), but return later to private practice, and either work your way up to partner or, return as a partner.
  4. Going it alone – you leave an established professional practice to set up your own practice.

As we said, answering the question ‘how to make partner’ is not so simple. Here are the 4 different answers or routes to partnership in more detail to show you how you can get to where you want to be. There is no one right or one wrong route to make partner. And it also easier said that done, but you should never compare your career progression to anyone else’s. The right route, is the right route for you. And if you make some mistakes along the way when it comes to moving roles or firms, then these often make for the richest learning experiences!

The Traditional Route

If you look at the career paths of the older partners within your practice, you will find that there are a significant percentage who have grown-up with the firm; they will have the ‘man and boy’ mentality so to speak. Unless they have undertaken secondments along the way, I bet you they will have no external work experience either. Why? Because twenty or thirty years ago, the answer to the question ‘ how to make partner’ was a simpler one: you graduate from university, join a firm as a trainee and you work your way up through the partnership track to make partner. 

At this time, it was uncommon for established professionals to move laterally between practices. Nowadays, it’s getting far less common for partners to have only worked at one firm during their working life and that is because the partnership track has changed. Making partner isn’t just a case of putting in the time and effort anymore, so the ‘traditional route’ isn’t as ‘guaranteed’ as it used to be. Most of the clients I work with at Big 4 firms have typically worked for more than 1 Big 4 firm. Loyalty to one firm for all your professional life is very rare for anyone under 45!

For this route to partnership to be right for you, you need to be confident regarding the following criteria:

The Lateral Route

Thinking about how to make partner offers far more options than it did before and the lateral route to partnership is becoming the most common route. This makes sense when you think about as if you’re ‘stuck’ on the career ladder in your current firm, you can move to a new firm where you may move up the rungs more quickly.

Today, most firms expect that they will need to regularly augment their talent pool with experienced hires from outside of the firm so they are completely open to this. This tends to happen more when the firm hasn’t been able to develop their own talent in a particular specialism or the firm chooses to bring in an experienced hire for strategic reasons, e.g. the experienced hire brings with them a valuable client portfolio. Or they are trying to beef up the partner presence in a particular technical or geographical area. It’s not unusual, particularly for law firms to hire in new partners. This could be by an individual moving firm, or even a partner and their team moving over. 

You will need to seriously think about choosing this route to partnership if:

  • Your route to partnership within your firm is blocked by more senior members of your practice area who will make partner before you, and, in all probability, significantly slow your career progression. This could easily happen if your firm merges with another firm.
  • Your personal values are clashing with the firm’s values. For example, you may find if you work for a very large and prestigious law firm that the high chargeable time targets you are required to hit are just not compatible with a meaningful family life. 
  • You are not excited by the thought of spending the whole of your career with your current firm.
  • You feel as if your face doesn’t fit within your firm.
  • You’ve have some personality conflicts within influential parts of the firm and believe that people will block your way. (Having a fresh start is often a great way to wipe the slate clean of any lingering career limiting moves/conversations or relationships.)
  • You feel as if you won’t be able to achieve all your life goals if you make partner within your current firm. This can apply to people who feel they have unfinished business if they give making partner in a Big 4 firm a go. Or those professionals, particularly consultants or lawyers, who can’t see how to have a family AND still progress their career in their firm.
  • You are not excited and passionate about your firm’s clients and likely future clients.
  • Your firm is experiencing financial difficulties and the growth of the firm is looking very unlikely. This can often happen in selected parts of a firm. For example, if a firm is going to make redundancies in one particular service line they can often be very reluctant to make up any partners in that service line. 
  • Your firm has many partners within your particular specialism, none of whom are likely to leave or retire in the short- or medium-term. This may happen to you as a result of your firm merging.
  • You want a variety to experience work in more than one firm before making partner.

Read: How to accelerate your career by moving firms (our 3-step guide) to get ahead at work.

The In-house Route

This is a less common route to partnership due to not having a client following, but one that brings many benefits particularly the first-hand experience of being embedded in a client’s business. Often you are recruited back into a professional services firm because of your now deep sector knowledge and the contacts you have built up while you were in industry.

Being a managing associate in a law firm where you were senior counsel of a major client of the firm is much more fun that being an associate

Managing Associate

The reasons for choosing this route are very similar to the lateral route to partner. However, you may like to consider this route if:

  • You are not entirely convinced that you want a long-term career within a professional service firm.
  • You want to be able to build up an in-depth knowledge of a particular sector and increase your network within the industry accordingly.
  • You want to extend your commercial acumen. Many former in-house counsel or members of the Big 4 have been enticed back into practice by the promise of rapid advancement due to their sector specific knowledge and network.

Going it alone

Thinking about how to make partner isn’t limited to working in industry, and in fact, many professionals are opting against trying to make partner in an established partnership and favouring starting up their own practice instead. This is a very common route to partnership, especially for senior professionals who want to be in full control of their career and people who have spent some time working outside in industry. 

If you want to ‘make partner’ by going it alone and being your own boss, there are three different routes that you can take:

  1. Buy into an established practice which is for sale
  2. Buy a franchise
  3. Startup your own practice from scratch

You may wish to consider this route if:

  • You want the freedom and flexibility that being your own boss can bring.
  • You are very entrepreneurial in your outlook, attitude to risk, and reward.
  • You feel stifled within an established practice.
  • You want to run your own business.
  • You want to practise as a professional, but weave your work commitments around your family or interests or hobbies.
  • You have been made redundant and decided that this is an ideal opportunity to work for yourself.

Read: Should I take the offer of partnership from a top 100 firm or start my own practice?

Which route are you taking to partnership?

There are four prongs to choose from when thinking about how to make partner: the traditional route, the lateral route, the in-house route, and going it alone. When choosing which route to take to partnership, make sure that it’s right for you as well as for your firm. 

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