YourABA: April 2014
YourABA April 2014 Masthead

A primer on making partner

Adam Gropper

Adam Gropper

Are you serious about making partner? If you want to better understand what law firm partners look for in associates and how to stand out from the competition, the recent American Bar Association book “Making Partner” provides you with a clear pathway past the obstacles to your success, even in the most difficult firm cultures.

This book is also useful for law students concerned about getting their first legal job. “Making Partner” provides practical information and specific advice about how to obtain a position at a top law firm of any size, including AmLaw 100 firms, and how to excel once you are there.

YourABA recently spoke with author Adam Gropper for more on the journey from prospective student to successful partner.

How are effective sales skills required in multiple stages of a law firm career?

This idea that sales skills, in addition to proficiency in applicable substantive law, are required to be a successful lawyer at a law firm or at any legal job may not be obvious to those considering law school and pursuing a legal career. But it becomes very clear once you are on the path. As discussed in more detail in “Making Partner,” effective sales skills are required for getting into the law firm and securing high-quality work from partners. For example, to obtain the position at a top firm — particularly if you do not have top grades — you have to convince the firm that you could contribute immediately to the practice based on your background and work experience and that, as such, the firm’s investment is less of a risk than its investment in others who show little or no previous commitment to the specific practice area.

Next, after establishing yourself worthy of a position, you have to prove to the partners that, in addition to your intellect and competency, you can handle lots of projects, be efficient and consistently produce solid work product. Your sales effort continues as you rise in the firm and must promote yourself inside and outside the firm to justify your increasing billable rate and to distinguish yourself in your practice area. Eventually, you have to make your case for partner based on a history of strong statistics and favorable client results. And even if you decide to leave the law firm after making partner, you have to tailor and perfect your pitch for that prestigious government job or that competitive position in-house with a major corporation.

In this competitive job market, what are some ways that candidates can distinguish themselves to get into a top law firm? 

There are two main ways candidates can distinguish themselves. The first is to “pick a major” as early as possible in law school. That means, after performing the necessary due diligence, including talking to practicing lawyers, decide the type of law that you are interested in practicing and begin your campaign to demonstrate a serious commitment to that particular area of law. One can show this commitment by taking classes in the area and doing well and by gaining substantive work experience in the area that can enable you to hit the ground running later at a top law firm. Another way to distinguish yourself is by thoroughly researching the firm and the partners with whom you will interview and providing them a couple of thoughtful ideas they can use to benefit their practice, the firm or its clients. For example, what are the leading lawyers in the industry writing and talking about and, along those lines, can you suggest an innovative idea that could potentially help the firm’s clients? 

What are “soft skills,” and why is developing them key to establishing yourself as a law firm leader?

Soft skills are personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others. Developing them is key because the law firm has many quirky partners with different personalities and preferences, and clients also have a wide variety of demands and expectations. So, producing excellent legal work is only part of the equation. To separate yourself from the pack, it helps to determine and satisfy partner preferences surrounding work assignments, manage your workload effectively by communicating responsibilities and satisfying time commitments, and seek specific feedback about how you are doing, take action and follow up.

How can an associate develop a partner’s mindset? 

Developing a partner’s mindset — thinking and acting like a partner from the beginning — is one of the keys to being a top performer at a top law firm. Partners may take notice of you and be more inclined to assign work to you; but more important, you increase your chances of success as a junior associate by acting as if, within appropriate boundaries, you have already made it to the next level. Note that this mindset can be helpful even for associates who have no interest in making partner because, as a top performer, you will also tend to have more opportunities to do something outside the firm.

Some examples of developing a partner’s mindset are:

  • Wearing suits even though the firm has a casual dress code.
  • Making decisions that are firm-centric by regularly consulting the firm’s policy manual and its mission statement.
  • Demonstrating a strong commitment to maximizing client/partner service by responding to requests immediately (or as soon as feasibly possible), taking the partner’s/client’s temperature regularly and adding value on one’s own initiative at no additional cost.

“Making Partner” discusses these and additional examples in detail.

What are some key tips that can put an associate on the fast track to partner? 

Every firm has a different culture and its own requirements to make partner. However, one can put himself or herself in the best possible position to be considered for partner when first possible by taking the following steps. First, secure both a sponsor and a mentor. A sponsor is someone who has your back and is in a position of influence when it comes time to fight for your annual raises, leadership positions for you at the firm and consideration for partnership — both whether you should be considered and timing. A mentor is someone who can help teach you how to practice law and how to be a XYZ (tax, securities, corporate, etc.) lawyer. Generally, a mentor and a sponsor will be two different people.  

In addition to securing a mentor and a sponsor, one should always take the time and put forth the necessary effort to:

  • Produce excellent work.
  • Perform at the highest levels by exceeding minimum billing requirements.
  • Be actively involved inside and outside the firm by participating in firm leadership roles, including mentoring younger lawyers.
  • Demonstrate that you care about the business of practicing law by helping with the billing process, from reviewing the invoice to dealing with clients who have questions.
  • Become an expert by creating a name for yourself in a particular subspecialty within your practice group.
  • Discuss your prospects with the appropriate lawyer and, assuming you are being considered, make your case in a formal memorandum for why you deserve admittance into the partnership.

What are some ways to ease the stress of transitioning from associate to junior partner? 

The key to success as a junior partner is to stay productive long enough to build a practice by persuading fellow partners to continue to use you and benefit from your sub-niche expertise, notwithstanding the higher billable rate. In addition to managing your workload effectively, you have to continue to build your brand and distinguish yourself — speaking and writing at a minimum, and perhaps even leaving the firm for a short time to gain technical or hands-on experience in government or industry. Overall, it is helpful to have the long view toward building a practice because the business development cycle is ongoing. For some prospective clients, it takes one meeting; for others, it takes a year or perhaps several years to secure the engagement.

Any advice you might offer to existing junior partners on how to perform well under duress/difficulty?

Continuing on from the last question, a common problem for junior partners at top firms is not staying busy but rather spending all of their time working for more senior partners such that they do not make sufficient or any time to build their brand and distinguish themselves. This is where a sponsor could be helpful for ideas, including to recommend that the junior partner spend some time every day, even if just five to 10 minutes, on a leadership position outside the firm, writing, preparing for a speaking engagement, or developing a plan for building their practice such that the junior partner’s future is not dependent on receiving work from one or two people at the firm.

Any other points you’d like to make about your book? 

The book concisely takes readers step by step through the journey from prelaw student through law firm junior partner do’s and don’ts. The practical advice about how to achieve success in law school, land a top law firm job and excel once there can be distilled into three major action steps:

  1. Choose a practice area and build your expertise.
  2. Network with people who share some commonalities and offer them good ideas.
  3. Practice persistence together with a long-view mindset.

Adam Gropper is the founder of LegalJob.com, a website that provides practical advice for law school students and law firm associates. Gropper is a legislation counsel on the staff of the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, assisting members of both parties in Congress in developing and drafting tax legislation and legislative history with a focus on the area of tax procedure and administration. Previously, Gropper was a tax partner at Baker & Hostetler LLP, where he spent 10 years handling tax controversy and planning matters.

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