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January 13, 2014 Articles

Transitioning to Partner

Making partner is just the beginning.

By Amy Drushal

Transitioning from an associate to a junior or full partner is a subtle change, yet it has big implications on your career. You know what it takes to make partner, but how do you stay there? What is next? Issues that need to be considered include learning the financial side of the firm’s business, managing the responsibility of being first chair on legal matters, and learning to make the transition from timekeeper to business generator, among other things. The transition from associate to partner will be different at each firm, but the same issues exist.

First, it is important to know what goes on in the business side of the firm. As a partner, your main job now is still to be an attorney and represent clients in court and at the negotiating table. The financial side of the business, while good to know, should not change your day-to-day activities as a lawyer. It should, however, give you an idea of how the firm is run and the stability of the organization. Talk to your office manager or a trusted partner and ask for an overview of the operations of the firm. Most shareholders are given the firm’s financial documents, and it is important that you understand what they mean and how they affect you. Learn about your own compensation. Will your monthly draws be less than your prior monthly salary? Are you prepared for that? Will you be responsible for capital calls? For example, many firms require newly minted lawyers to “buy in” to the partnership. Doing so is generally an expensive proposition and requires appropriate budgeting and planning. What taxes will you need to pay now? If your firm is in multiple states, you may be responsible for paying taxes in those states. Insurance and retirement benefits often change as well. Find out how contributions are made and whether you are required to purchase additional insurance.

Next, be a better lawyer. You now have the opportunity to be the lead attorney on your cases and help guide the strategy and course for your clients’ cases and projects. As a partner, it is important to delegate work to associates; however, you should not delegate all of your work—you still need to be in the trenches. Consider specializing in a practice area if you do not already focus on one. If you do, apply for board or other appropriate certifications that will help enhance your professional profile and distinguish you from other practitioners. Engage (and take seriously) continuing legal education in your areas of practice. Not to be ignored is bettering the firm’s legal reputation. Train and mentor the young lawyers in the firm. Do not just give them assignments. Give them feedback. Engage them in the strategy of the case. Teach them to be good lawyers. Not only does this assist in developing your own skills, but also you are assisting in making the young lawyer (your future partner) a better lawyer.

You should also not forget your fellow partners when discussing matters with existing and potential clients. For example, while your focus may be commercial litigation, your clients’ needs are often more diverse. If a client needs help negotiating a lease, forming different business entities, or dealing with tax issues, you may not be able to provide those services, but others in your firm may be able to address those needs. Not only will this be beneficial for your client and the firm generally, but also numerous benefits will redound to you including cross-referrals and business-generation credit you would not otherwise be able to create.

Finally, the firm’s expectations of you as a partner are different than those of an associate in terms of firm involvement, client development, business generation, and community involvement. Usually at the partner level, the hourly requirement for billable hours decreases and the non-billable hour requirement increases. It is time to get out of the office. While “face time” at the firm is important as an associate, that is not the case as a partner. Face time with clients and referral sources is what matters most now. Grab lunch or breakfast a few times a week with a current client, former client, or referral source. Find out your firm’s resources for possible events (sporting events, festivals, concerts) to entertain clients.

If you have not done so already, now is the time to get involved in bar-association work or to volunteer on a local board. Being involved, however, does not mean just joining—it means participating and being active. Volunteer to write an article; apply for positions in leadership; do something that betters the association or organization. Consider doing some pro bono work. All of these activities increase your reputation as well as the firm’s reputation and visibility. These activities also are opportunities that build relationships for future legal work. The longer you are a partner, the more the firm starts looking to you to bring in work. This is how you start.

Being a partner is not much different from being an associate. But it is an achievement, an honor, and an opportunity to grow. Use this opportunity and be a true partner and team member in your firm.

Amy Drushal is a shareholder at Trenam Kemker in Tampa, Florida.