J. Nick Augustine J.D. is the principal of Law Publicist Communications, an ALR/PRA, Incorporated agency. Law Publicist Communications is a public relations agency also offering coaching and consulting. Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations, marketing and practice management. Nick shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.
Attorneys are always in transition. One of the least addressed groups is the pool of associates who want to become a partner. The type of associate who leaves a firm to hang their own shingle is probably a rainmaker who would be a good partner. Partnership decisions and staff/associate attorney movement often happen behind closed doors. Existing equity and even non-equity partners might be privy to the direction of the firm and whether Attorney Bob or Sue will ever be offered partnership.
Make no mistake; larger law firms are very competitive and political. Those who get along well with others (clients and fellow attorneys) and who excel in their practice areas have the best chance at becoming a partner. Many associates are skilled in their practice areas, but lack other non-academic qualities to be one of the partners.
Dedication to a group of attorneys organized in a law firm should be taken seriously. Partnerships also take on different formations. Some firms require a capital contribution to buy-in to partnership. Other firms invite new partners without an initiation fee or waive the right to contribution unless the attorney leaves the partnership before a determined amount of time. Partnership agreements are as unique as those who draft them. The commitment expected may be great, and the more you know walking into negotiation, the better you can spot the best fit.
Consider 7 questions to help you determine whether you really want to become a partner or actually want to start your own firm:
1. Do you want control over the direction of a law firm?
Some of us think we know how we want to practice from the second day of law school while others seem to frequently change direction. If you are a dynamic practitioner, and want more freedom, then you might be happier having the ability to switch gears.
2. Are you strong in selling others on the quality of a firm?
Not everyone has the gift of marketing themselves and others are natural rainmakers. If you practice in a competitive space and need to compete for clients then solo life may not be your best bet. If however you are a sales savvy lawyer then you are well suited both for private practice and as well as a partner in a larger firm. The climbing associate should consider their ability to build a book of business.
3. Is it likely you will change your practice area lineup to meet demands?
Remember how many residential real estate closing attorneys there were five years ago? It seems like many of these attorneys opted to practice bankruptcy law instead. Practice areas are subject to shifting economic conditions. Will you hop on the next bandwagon or ride out the storm?
4. Have you ever managed a group of strong-willed professionals?
If you think management sounds like an annoying burden in a small firm, consider the drama that comes along with management decision making in any larger organization. There is no quicker way to put a price on your own head when you make a decision that not all will like.
5. Does sharing profits and losses move you in one direction?
Profits per partner averages are reviewed and some partners make greater contributions to those numbers. The partners who engage in valuable but less billable work affect the averages. This can cause stress to other partners.
6. Are you the type who enjoys commitment or wants to see if other grass is greener?
Building a firm with valuable partners is not unlike a marriage. The firm may expect a commitment that some attorneys are not ready to make. It is not very easy to become a partner, and to leave that partnership is like a divorce and can be difficult and expensive.
7. Do you balance your professional, personal and community needs well?
I have heard from countless large law firm partners that the firm likes it when you spend your weekend in the office. Yes, some firms are more flexible with outside commitments, but most do not prefer you to have much of a life outside the office.