Sometimes, the only opportunity you have to talk formally about your career ambitions is in your annual appraisal. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate your readiness for partner. However, many senior associates and directors blow this opportunity by not preparing properly for this very important conversation. In this article I will share with you how one of my mentees used the appraisal conversation to raise the stakes and get his partners, for the first time, to consider him seriously for partner.
The firm my client works for tends to keep its equity to a small number of partners. Therefore, it’s not easy to make the transition from Senior Associate, Legal Director or Counsel. This is not an uncommon scenario for law, accountancy, or consultancy firms. The challenge in these sorts of firms is how to get supported to make it to partner when the day job doesn’t leave time for anything else. In many firms, such as the Big 4, Magic Circle and highly specialist boutique firms, you often have to have partner on your business card before you can win your own work. However, to make partner you need to demonstrate you can win work. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg scenario.
When you are starting the journey of pitching yourself as a partner-for-the-immediate-future it can be very difficult not to appear pushy, needy or the petulant small child. The last thing you want to do is seem like Oliver Twist holding up a bowl asking for more.
Why the partner conversation needs to be graceful and effective
Let’s put ourselves in your partners’ shoes. They have worked hard to earn a slice of the firm and enjoy the fiscal rewards that come with that. Every time they admit a new partner they risk diluting their personal share of the firm’s profits. They also risk bringing discord and conflict into their very private club. This is exactly why the conversation which goes:
“Please sir, I’ve been hitting all my numbers, may I become a partner?”
is not a good idea!
How can you change the conversation?
The first thing you need to do is ditch the ‘I’m entitled’ attitude, i.e. I’ve kept my nose clean and done a good job and delivered on my numbers. To have the conversation in the right way you need to change all the conversations you are having with your partners. Not just in your appraisal but generally. You need to start thinking and talking as if you are already an owner of the business. Think commercially and strategically. Remember that the conversation with your partner in which you declare your hand and partnership ambition is the first opportunity to show that you are thinking like an owner of the firm. For example:
- Where are their opportunities to generate more profitable revenue?
- Where are their profit leaks that could be easily fixed?
- How can you build a business case for you to make partner?
As already mentioned, you need to show you think commercially, strategically AND demonstrate by your actions that you are ready for partnership.
- Bring along a mini-business case which demonstrates your thinking and how you will grow the profits of the partnership.
- Show the marketing plan you have been working on and evidence of success.
- Put a value on your referral network and the matters you have originated in the last 3 years.
Why do you need to put a value on your referral network?
Networks can be very nefarious things. However, particularly if you offer a distressed service such as litigation, your network is where the real value is to be found. After all, you can’t normally rely on repeat business or loyal clients when you deliver a distressed service. Therefore, for every referral you bring into your firm, track what happens to it and how much revenue it brings in. This will help you in many ways:
- You will learn exactly how much value you have brought into the firm. This is very useful for pay rise and career progression conversations.
- You know how much business you can probably rely on to follow if you went to another firm or set up by yourself.
- You can justify exactly what the partnership is gaining by making you up to partner.
- It shows that you understand that, as a partner, it is more about the total value you bring to a firm rather than just your billable hours.
Showing by your words and deeds that you are thinking like a partner, i.e. commercially and strategically, will help you demonstrate in your appraisal, that your case for partnership needs to be taken seriously – now.