At ZSA, our consultants have an ear to the ground on the ins-and-outs of achieving partnership roles. Over the last number of years, however, we’ve seen the “traditional” path from associate to partner narrow and become more competitive. This week, we’ve asked our consultants for their insights into these trends, and how to push towards partnership despite them.
What’s Partnership Got to Do With It?
“Partnership is no longer the obvious career path it was once for lawyers,” says Mike Race, Client Partner with ZSA. “No longer can a lawyer expect to work hard as an associate for a set number of years and automatically be invited into partnership.”
In fact, many associates are no longer as interested in pursuing partnership positions. “While there are exceptions, many young associates no longer see partnership as a realistic or coveted goal,” says Lana Driscoll, Client Partner with ZSA. “Young associates look at the partners at their firm and their quality of life and choose a difference path. They look at the number of senior associates made up to partner year to year, and may view the opportunity as unrealistic.”
Other young lawyers see their professional interests shifting to other opportunities in the legal market. “With the increased availability of in-house opportunities for junior lawyers and innovations within law firms such as non-partnership career paths, there are great opportunities out there for lawyers not interested in a “traditional” career path,” says Travis Usher, Recruitment Consultant with ZSA. “Many young associates also seek an opportunity to become entrenched in and really understand one business rather than working on piecemeal work for a variety of different clients,” adds Driscoll.
Tips for Climbing Up
Nevertheless, partnership remains a viable and much desired position. Given the increased pressures and competition facing those striving to land partnership roles, we’ve put together some tips to set you on the right track as you work towards partnership.
1. Build a book of business.
While technical expertise and consistent high billings are a given, setting yourself apart will mean demonstrating your ability to bring work to the firm. “Building a book of business with strong client relationships will be vital,” says Race.
Business development skills will also be key in your pursuit to partnership. “Learn to write a business plan for your own practice,” says Race. “This will be useful whether looking for a promotion to partner within your own firm, or moving to another firm with better potential for a partnership position.”
2. Demonstrate management and leadership skills.
“Any opportunity to show leadership or learn management skills will add to your arsenal,” says Race. “Put your hand up for any training opportunities. Most firms have learning and development programs available; if not, it’s worth seeking such training opportunities and asking your firm if it would support these.”
3. Consider the value of staying at the firm you’re in versus the value of looking elsewhere.
You may already be weighing pursuing partnership at the firm you’re already in against looking elsewhere. There are several advantages to continuing to grow within your current firm. “You shouldn’t underestimate the value of relationship capital you built over the years at your firm, including knowing the systems, the politics, how things work, and having internal support,” says Race.
At the same time, Race suggests that some associates may only realize their true value elsewhere.
“I have worked with a number of senior level associates who have been at their firms for a long time but are taken for granted and are being overlooked in terms of salary increases and promotions,” says Race. “The assumption is that they are comfortable and will never leave. Often, such individuals have to look elsewhere. The right firm will be able to see them with fresh eyes, realize their value, and reward them accordingly.”
4. Always have a grip on your own career path.
As to when to make the move towards partnership, Race says that the answer to this question will vary person to person. “Having said that,” says Race, “once you’re around 6-7 years post-call, you want to be giving serious consideration as to what you want your next step to be – and planning for it. If you don’t take your own career path in hand, you are relying on being lucky enough to have others looking out for you. That’s rarely going to work in your favour. At that level of seniority, you want to start making your intentions clear internally within your firm or begin making external career moves. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming an overpriced associate with a high salary and charge-out rate, which may make it difficult for other firms to take you on without a transportable book. Other firms will start asking themselves, ‘If you are so good at what you do, why hasn’t your current firm already made you a partner for risk of losing you?’”
While the track towards partnership has undoubtedly evolved, a strategic plan should set you on course.