October 23, 2012


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In Up or Over

Making Partner

It's Up or Out No More as Alternatives Shake up the Traditional Partnership Model

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Partnership Criteria: The Ground Rules of Moving Up

By John R. Sapp

Law firms rarely publish their criteria for partnership, although some have. If you ask some of the partners, you will probably get the same answer, more or less, but with varying emphasis. The emphasis will change from partner to partner and from time to time, but large office or small, the criteria are much the same.

Personal Characteristics

Written criteria or a thoughtful response from a partner will probably include most of the following personal characteristics:

Hard work: This usually means you devote a certain number of hours to the practice; that is, billable hours, practice development, training efforts and management contribution, but particularly billable hours.

Good work: This means you research, write, speak and negotiate well. You are technically proficient and have good practice habits.

Client-handling skills: You handle clients well and are able to convey to them you are handling their matters well.

Maturity: You are in control of your life. You receive, as well as merit, the respect of colleagues, adversaries, staff and others.

Public profile: You are involved in your community and profession in a way that reflects well on yourself and the law firm.

Collegiality: Being with you is pleasant, and you contribute to a positive atmosphere in the office.

Entrepreneurial attitude: You think like an owner rather than an employee. You are willing to invest your energy, your ideas and your money in the future of the law firm.

Client development: Because you meet the other criteria, existing clients ask you to do more work for them, and new clients seek you to represent them.

There is room for you: Firms vary widely in how and when they promote associates to partner—you won't make partner unless those criteria are satisfied.

Other Issues

Some other items you may want to understand include the following:

Partnership structure: Is there a single tier of partners in the firm, or are there multiple tiers? What is the track for each tier? Are salaried or no-equity partners made after a few years, with full, equity or senior partnership held off for another period of apprenticeship (or perhaps forever)?

Growth policy: Does the law firm intend to grow over time? Is there a plan for achieving such growth? Does the plan include hiring and training new associates, hiring laterals, or merging with other firms, or all three? If lateral hires are introduced, how does this affect the partnership prospects of "homegrown" associates?

Partner power: Once you are an equity, full, general, senior, fully ensconced partner, what rights do you have? Is voting weighted? Is it so heavily weighted that only a few—or even very few—partners control the firm, firm decisions and partner compensation? What matters come to the partners for decision? Are all-important issues delegated to a select few, without appeal? Does the partnership agreement structure decision making so that the governing body is unfettered?

Governance: Is the governing body effective? Can any partner run for the governing body, or are there criteria based upon years of partnership, level of compensation or heredity?

Firm participation: How can you get involved? Many firms include associates on certain committees.

Mandatory retirement: Does the law firm have a program that requires partners who reach a specified age to give up their units, management/practice control or other responsibilities? Is the program "one size fits all" or individualized? Does this affect partnership opportunities?

Communications: How will the firm communicate with you? Many firms use mentors, roundtable sessions, committees or similar methods to communicate.