October 23, 2012

Advice for a new partner on the dynamics of working with senior partners.

Law Practice Magazine

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Taking Ownership

Practice Building Strategies for New Partners

Thinking like an Owner.

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July/August 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 5 | Page 14

Ask Bill

Advice for a new partner on the dynamics of working with senior partners.

Q.  Bill, I was recently made a partner at my firm and I realize that working with senior partners is going to be critical to my success. But I’m not sure how the dynamics will differ from when I was an associate. I don’t want to make missteps. Any advice?

A.  To answer your question, I called on two seasoned lawyers—Edward Flitton and Arthur Greene—each with more than 30 years of experience working at large law firms. Both Ed and Arthur served as managing partners, Ed with Holland & Hart in Denver and Arthur at McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton in Manchester, New Hampshire. Ed recently retired and is of counsel to his firm. Arthur left McLane, Graf a few years ago to start his own firm and to develop a law firm consulting practice.

In Ed’s view, the keys to success are business development and case and client responsibility. “On the business development side,” he says, “that means being active in the community in order to develop a network and developing a niche specialty.” It also involves “building a reputation in the bar for that skill by being active in bar organizations, giving speeches and writing articles.” The result of those efforts will be to bring in new clients to the firm. But there is, of course, more that the new partner can do.

Cross-Selling to Maximize Your Impact

Ed also advises new partners to cross-sell the firm’s services to existing clients for whom they are already doing legal work: “For a new partner, cross-selling (getting business from a client that the firm does not currently handle) is particularly important because it allows the new partner to bring in new work that can be passed off to more-senior partners. Nothing thrills a middle or senior partner more than having a nice piece of business being delivered by a new partner.” And as he points out, “The new partner does not have to have overall responsibility for the client for this to work.”

Rather, the new partner can leverage her success in working with the client to get the firm in the door when new needs arise in the client’s business. For example, if the young partner is working on business transactions and learns that the client is facing a labor relations matter and doesn’t have regular counsel in that area, Ed advises that “the new partner can convince the client to give the law firm an opportunity to make a pitch for the new business. The new partner then contacts a more-senior partner to put together the pitch, and if the firm gets the business, the young partner gets credit from both sides. The client will be impressed by her resourcefulness and her senior partner will be excited about this potentially valuable door being opened by the new partner. The senior partner will do the work and bill the hours, but the young partner will get credit for bringing the client to the firm.”

From the firm’s perspective, there are at least two good reasons for the young partner to pass the work off to the more-senior partner:

  • The first reason is that the senior partner will have more experience and probably give better advice.
  • The second reason is that the senior partner will be able to bill for his time at a higher rate than the new partner and the firm will make more money.

Working Toward the Ownership Mind-set

Working with clients to bring business to the firm will require the junior partner to have a mind-set different from that of an associate. According to Arthur Greene, “Too many young partners continue to operate with the mentality of an associate and often spend most of their time working on cases for senior partners.” Arthur’s experience in a large law firm led him to conclude, “Associates are not trained to be law practice managers and don’t have a clue as to how to succeed as an owner.” On the other hand, he saw many successful examples of lateral partners who came into the large firm after having years of experience in a small firm, where they had to personally deal with such issues as marketing and client development. These lawyers displayed a working knowledge of how to be financially successful and had an advantage as partners over colleagues who came up as associates with the firm.

Simply put, Arthur’s view is that young partners who understand law practice management will have a significant advantage throughout their careers.

Being responsible for clients is another important area in the life of a new partner, according to both Ed and Arthur. Ed says, though, that “it is very difficult for a new partner to be in charge of significant clients.” Big clients expect to have a “heavy hitter” in charge of their legal work. Arthur advises the young partner to reinforce the client’s relationship with the senior partner and take care “not to appear to be trying to ‘steal’ the client” from the senior partner.

In addition, he says, “a common mistake is not keeping the senior partner informed as to the status of a client’s matter.” It could be embarrassing—or worse—if the senior lawyer were to meet the client at a social event or while working on another matter and didn’t know what was happening with the case that the younger partner was working on. That kind of situation will jeopardize the relationship between the client and the senior partner, as well as the relationship between the senior and junior partners.

It strikes me that there are good reasons that clients want to have a senior lawyer in charge of their work. One reason has to do with the “worst-case scenario”: From the client’s perspective, if the client or the client’s general counsel gets bad advice from a senior partner at the firm, or even if he gets good advice but things don’t turn out as expected, the general counsel can claim that he sought out the “best legal advice” and the result isn’t his fault. On the other hand, if things go wrong, as they sometimes do, and the work was all done by a young, inexperienced partner, people will want to know why the general counsel didn’t get a heavy hitter to be in charge of the client’s legal work.

Putting the Building Blocks in Place

Ed Flitton says that if a young partner wants to have greater overall responsibility for a client’s legal work, then she should find some smaller clients to bring into the firm. Ed is correct, but I’ll note that I have heard numerous complaints from junior partners that the clients they brought in couldn’t afford the hourly rates charged by big law firms or that the firm didn’t see the client’s legal work as being profitable enough to justify keeping the client.

Ed also advises young partners (and associates as well) to avoid aligning with senior partners who are unsuccessful, disillusioned or angry. Finding the right senior partner to be a mentor and role model will make the transition from associate to junior partner go a lot easier.

About the Author

K. William Gibson is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. He is the author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice, 2nd Ed. (ABA, 2006) and the editor of Flying Solo: A Survival Guide, 4th Ed. (ABA, 2005).