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When most young people enter the legal profession, and take up a training contract at a large private practice, I’m guessing that in the back of their minds is the thought that one day they may make partner. At this stage of their careers, the thought of rising to the top of the firm, working on challenging cases and deals for important clients, having the status of an equity partner and the large six or seven-figure salary to go with it, must be very appealing.
Few will probably realise that less than 5% of them will ever get to be partners: many will drop out of the profession disillusioned by the long-hours culture and the nature of the work, many will go in-house, and even more will have to drop down to smaller firms to realise their ambitions.
Those that stay the course will probably take about ten years to rise to the upper echelons of the firm’s senior associate cadre and be in a position where the firm is considering their suitability to be a partner. As a ‘log jam’ of such candidates has built up across BigLaw, senior associates have found that the length of time required to reach the rank of partner has been getting longer, and that they may even get ‘parked’ in a Legal Counsel or Legal Director role, most never destined to make partner.
By now, these individuals will have no illusions about the demands of a career in commercial law in a big firm. Billing in excess of 2,000 hours a year, working long days and nights and weekends, missing family events, cancelling holidays, and suffering from stress and perhaps even regular bouts of illness, the last ten years will have been no picnic for most. But even at this stage in their careers, I find myself coaching senior associates who are pushing for partnership and who still don’t seem aware of, or are prepared to make, the further sacrifices that partnership demands. So, what are these?
If you thought that the hours you work as a senior associate are demanding, the amount of time that you will have to devote to the business as a partner will be even greater, perhaps around 50% more hours. And the nature of what you do during these hours will change. Under the ‘finder – minder – grinder’ business model, up until this point most senior associates will have been mainly ‘grinding’ out the work for clients. From now on, you will be expected to both find the work and mind the shop as well.
Your work-life balance will slip further towards work, with even more family events missed, even more holidays cancelled, and even fewer weekends off. And don’t kid yourself that in these days of agile working and family-friendly policies you will be spared these extra sacrifices. The unwritten rule in most firms is that partners must commit themselves unstintingly to the cause. If as a senior associate you acquire a reputation for ducking out of the office early to pick the kids up from school, your chances of partnership will be dead in the water.
As a new partner, most firms will expect you to build your own book of business. No longer will you be able to spend your days working on files gifted to you by the partners. In fact, in many firms, your remuneration will depend on your ability to bring in your own clients, so you will be dis-incentivised from working for other partners’ clients. Perversely, this runs counter to the obvious strategy of developing the firm’s existing clients and presents the new partners with the exceedingly difficult challenge of bringing in new ones instead.
So, now as a new partner, you will need to acquire the skills required to be good at business development, which is not easy if up to this point you have had little exposure to BD activities. The added challenge comes when you recognise that the lead times to convert BD activity into new work are usually long, meaning that you will probably be recording lots of non-chargeable BD time and very little billable hours as you embark on your career as a partner.
As a partner, you will be expected to contribute to practice management, in other words, minding the shop. As a senior associate, you may have been involved in some management tasks, including staff/work supervision, recruitment, training/mentoring and appraisals, but this will now ramp up with partner retreats, practice planning/budgeting, liaising with overseas offices, involvement in various committees, etc. added to the list and taking up even more of your time. And client work will be expected to take precedent over these activities, so you will find yourself doing most of them in the evenings or at weekends.
Finally, if you thought finding extra time was going to be your only problem as a new partner, you will also have to make the financial commitment of buying into the partnership, probably by taking out a loan to fund your capital injection. This amount is likely to be of the same order of magnitude as your mortgage and although you would hope to be able to pay this off from the increased earnings which should come from being a partner, you can expect to take 5-10 years to do so. So, some financial sacrifices will also have to be made in the early years of being a partner.
So, if you are a senior associate on the brink of getting a shot at partnership in your firm, ask yourself whether you are prepared to make these extra sacrifices or whether a better work-life balance working in-house or in a smaller, less-pressurised firm would suit you better.
Kevin Wheeler is a business consultant and coach who has worked in the legal sector for more than 20 years. He specialises in BD coaching and coaching senior associates pushing for partnership in their firms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Kevin Wheeler has been advising professional services firms on all aspects of marketing and business development for more than 30 years. As a consultant he helps firms to manage and grow their key clients as well as to win new ones. As a Meyler Campbell qualified coach he works with partners and those approaching partnership to improve their BD skills.
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