Making sure you’re on track to become partner is somewhat a matter of putting yourself on that path.
“It starts with whether your goal is to become shareholder,” said Tim Valentyn, president and managing shareholder with Murphy Desmond SC, Madison. “If your ultimate goal is to become a shareholder, I think, it’s a process of communication on both ends. The law firm should be communicating to the lawyer what the expectations are and where they are on the progress line, and the associate should be communicating their interest.”
Once that’s done, associates need to make sure they stay on track.
“I would say that a young attorney knows whether they’re on track based on the feedback they’re getting from the senior attorneys they’re working with,” said Doug Hahn, managing partner at Menn Law Firm Ltd., Appleton.
For associates at Menn, a firm with 24 attorneys, including 13 partners, that feedback comes through annual reviews, where senior attorneys lay out where associates fall on a list of written criteria for making partner; a process that typically takes about seven years, Hahn said.
At Murphy Desmond, there is no prescribed timeframe for making partner, although shareholders do rely on reviews to help track where associates are in the process.
“It just depends on the firm,” said Valentyn, who has spent 25 years with Murphy Desmond, a firm with just under 40 attorneys, including 13 partners. “If the firm has a stated timeline, you’re going to know where you are on that timeline. But there are other criteria, other than how long you’ve been there, that matter: developing an area of expertise, being productive, working hard; it’s the same old ingredients that go into success.”
Hahn and Valentyn agreed that associates hoping to make partner shouldn’t be shy about asking the best way to achieve that goal.
“A lot of law firms, the senior ones don’t give as much feedback as the younger attorneys would like,” said Hahn, an attorney for 33 years. “So, we older attorneys should be receptive when we’re asked for feedback, so they know where they stand.”
Valentyn agreed, noting there “should be ongoing feedback from the firm on how you’re doing.”
“You shouldn’t be asking every month,” he said, “but if you’re an associate and, if your desire is to become a shareholder, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask.”
Asking is perhaps the most direct way to gauge whether you’re on the path to become a shareholder. But there are other metrics, as well.
“You’ve got to be a good lawyer,” Valentyn said. “You’ve got to provide a quality work product in a timely fashion to the people who are assigning work to you. That sounds really obvious, but that’s going to get you there. You have to show a hunger for a volume of work, not be afraid to take on any task.”
Competence is key, as well as consistency and confidence, Hahn said. But people skills also are important. An attorney can be “technically brilliant” but still require work on their social skills, he said.
If those skills aren’t polished, it could definitely hurt an associate’s chances for advancement.
“(Potential partners) have to fit in personality-wise at the law firm,” Hahn said. “We don’t want to have making a shareholder go to their heads and they become a tyrant to the young associates.”
Prospective shareholders also need to show they can communicate well with people outside the firm.
“We put a value on people who network, who show an interest in developing clients, who put forth an effort in what is a really competitive world to spread their own brand and generate their own client base,” Valentyn said. “It’s difficult, but if you have the ability to generate a client base through networking or contacts or developing an area of expertise that has great value.”
Practice area doesn’t really matter, Hahn and Valentyn agreed. But, they said, make sure your niche has a place within your firm.
“It needs to be the kind of law that is in demand for our client base, so you’re not an expert in something where we get one call a year,” Hahn said. “There have to be clients who need that service.”
Whatever the specialty, Valentyn said, potential shareholders need to show they can bring some value to the firm beyond billable hours, although you can certainly expect to log your fair share on the way to the board room.
“We don’t have the same level of quotas that you’re going to see at a larger firm,” Valentyn explained. “We tell our associates they should be expecting to work 45 to 50 hours every week.”
Certainly, that number can fluctuate depending on caseloads and deadlines. But, associates should also keep in mind that serious shareholder candidates also put in hours outside the office.
“We tell people we don’t want you going home and sitting on the couch every night,” Valentyn said. “Get out in the community. We don’t care what your interests are, but find a way to give back, find something where you’re getting known in the community in a positive way.”
The best way to approach partnership is to understand that it’s a process and not always a smooth one – a fact many firms recognize.
“If someone is struggling their first couple of years we’ll be talking to them about that and how they can improve,” Hahn said. “Our goal when we hire somebody is they will be here their entire career and they will make partner. So we will work with younger attorneys, recognizing the burden is on them to do the work.
“And as they get closer to shareholder status, we’ll let them know where we have confidence and where we have concerns and where they can improve.”
There’s no firm deadlines, he said.
“If it takes someone a little bit longer to meet all the criteria, that’s fine. It’s not … either you make partner by this date or you’re fired. Some are more superstars and are clear candidates early on and others need more work.”
But, Valentyn said, if you find yourself drifting off the partner path, it’s best to course correct as soon as possible.
“Find out what you have to do to get back on and, very honestly, find out if you can,” Valentyn said. “All you can hope for is that the firm will be honest with you and say, ‘We can’t see you becoming a partner.’ “If you get that tough message, you either readjust your goals, which is a polite way of saying you give up on becoming a partner, or you start looking somewhere else. That’s a very tough one.”