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Pulling Back the Curtain on Partnership

Erin Rhinehart

Pulling Back the Curtain on Partnership
Sergey Nivens via Shutterstock

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The path to partnership can be compared to Dorothy's journey to the Emerald City—long and arduous, laden with interesting people, often curious, and always challenging.

Remember the scene from the Wizard of Oz where Toto finds the wizard working the controls of his machines from behind the curtain? Well, making partner is a lot like that. The path to partnership can be compared to Dorothy's journey to the Emerald City—long and arduous; laden with interesting people—some friendly, some not; often curious; and always challenging. Yet, when she finally reaches the Wizard and expects all of her problems to be solved, it is not what she expected. In some ways the reality of partnership can be disappointing; the brass ring is in your grasp, and the illusion of grandeur is gone. But, in other ways, partnership can offer much more than you initially envisioned. Let's take a peek behind the curtain.

The Path to Partnership: Follow the Yellow Brick Road

3,768 days. Or 10 years, 3 months, 24 days, 90,432 hours (not all of them billable). That is how long it took for me to make partner. While every firm is different, long gone are the five-to-seven-year partnership tracks and near-guarantees of securing the title simply for surviving. Partnership is not inevitable. Strong research and writing skills, good judgment, and the ability to evaluate situations critically are the bare minimum requirements if you want to be considered a "good associate." If you want to make partner, you need to start thinking like an owner. What does that mean? It means you understand the business of your law firm—how it operates on financial and operational levels. It means you understand how to get and retain clients. It means you understand your firm's brand—not just your personal brand.

Making Partner: Pulling Back the Curtain 

Partnership comes with a brand new set of expectations and responsibilities—legal and financial, among others. Be prepared. First, long gone are the days of simply practicing law. Now, you must master building and maintaining your own practice while supporting the success of associates, paralegals, and staff, all while keeping the firm moving forward. Learning how to prioritize, organize, and manage chaos is key.

Second, long gone are the days of simply collecting a salary and knowing exactly what your tax obligations are. As an owner of a law firm, you will no longer make a salary; you will receive a distribution of the firm's profits depending on your percentage of ownership. Taxes are no longer automatically deducted from your paycheck, and April 15th is no longer the only time of year you will pay taxes. Welcome to quarterly tax payments. If you do not yet have a personal accountant and financial planner, I strongly encourage you to ask for recommendations. An accountant can help you plan for these payments and manage your finances.

Finally, while a significant increase in your compensation will accompany the new title, so will a capital contribution. All firms are different when it comes to capital contributions, including the amount and payment terms. For example, some law firms may require new partners to contribute $50,000–$100,000 of capital paid over one to three years. If you are within the three-to-five-year window of being considered for partner, ask a mentor or trusted colleague who has been through the process. The sooner you understand the financial obligations that accompany partnership, the better.

Finding Your Place in the Partnership: There's No Place Like Home

826 days. Or 2 years, 3 months, 5 days, 19,824 hours (again, not all of them billable). That is how long I have had the privilege of being a partner in my law firm. While the movie ends with Dorothy's return home, her story continues. As she wakes from her dream, she has a newfound understanding of her role in her family and her purpose in life. Like Dorothy's return home, partnership is not the end; it is a new beginning.

Partnerships are a lot like family—some are big, and some are small; there are arguments, disagreements, negotiations, introverts, risk-takers, and some big egos to navigate. Finding your place takes time and consideration on your part. Give some thought to what you want your role to be within the partnership and set new goals for yourself. It is likely that making partner has long been a goal that you have been working toward. Now that you have achieved that goal, what's next for you and the firm? Set personal career goals, as well as goals for your firm.

In the end, making partner can be a horse of a different color. The expectations of a firm leader can seem impossible at times, but the rewards of being an owner—of building and growing your practice and your firm—are unparalleled.