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February 12, 2015 Practice Points

Women Progressing into Partnership

By Diana E. Mahoney

On December 12, 2014, the ABA Law Practice Division published an article summarizing its recent interactive panel discussion entitled “Progressing into Partnership—Road Rules for a New Role,” which took place during the ABA Women Rainmakers Mid-Career Workshop in San Diego, California. This panel featured commentary from two male and two female attorneys who offered diverse perspectives on the road to partnership, finding success in your role as a partner, and achieving work-life balance. The article concluded that although the rules of the road to partnership will vary from firm to firm, a solid understanding of the issues one may face along the way can be a valuable tool. While there is no formal training for “how to run a law firm,” the panelists agreed that in scouting potential partnership candidates, firms will seek younger lawyers who assume leadership roles and responsibilities in both their legal and non-legal communities.

The panel emphasized the important role of the “mentor” and the “sponsor” in cultivating associates as future partners. The mentor can provide associates with valuable insight on the characteristics their firm believes qualify individuals for partnership and disqualify others. Likewise, the “sponsor” is an individual whom you can trust to advocate on your behalf when you are not present in a room. Both relationships are critical to an associate’s progression towards partnership and both must develop organically.

With regard to the criteria considered for partnership, the panelists encouraged associates to strive to be “value-added” employees who appreciate efficiency at the firm, in addition to reaching billable hour requirements. In particular, they emphasized the benefit of looking beyond minimum billable hours and focusing instead on the bottom line revenue actually collected from the hours billed.

Once you have assumed the role of partner at your firm, the panel advised it is time to start planning for and accepting new responsibilities. As members of a firm’s leadership team, partners are often expected to participate in various administrative committees and take an active role in marketing the firm’s business to potential clients. The panelists presented the benefits and drawbacks associated with equity and non-equity partnership including tax consequences, compensation distribution, and equity buy-ins as potential issues for which new partners must be prepared to plan.

The panelists also discussed communication gaps that continue to exist among male and female partners. In their roles, partners continue to struggle to actively listen to diverse opinions, and openly address controversial topics such as maternity leave, family leave, and compensation.  

Finally in response to the age old question: “Can you have it all?”—the panel agreed that a partner must evaluate each quality of life benefit against its attendant cost. The ability to play an active role in your child’s upbringing may often mean forgoing “maximum revenue” or billable hours at your firm, but each individual family must make its own assessment of these costs and benefits. One point the panelists were all in agreement on is that having a helpful support staff can certainly be key to achieving the ideal work-life balance.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, ABA women rainmakers, partnership, promotion, work-life balance

Diana E. Mahoney works at Bressler, Amery & Ross, PC in New York, New York

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