Being a happy partner is all about where it happens, not when
Let’s assume you want to be a partner. As you clamber over colleagues to grasp at those increasingly rare partnership positions, the destination can become the be-all and end-all. Partnership anywhere, at any cost – that’s the name of the game.
But are all partnerships equal? Is a partnership at any firm better than facing your Room 101, the legal scrapheap?
There may be some of you who are approaching that critical 8-9 years’ PQE, where you can hear that partnership clock ticking. This is the dangerous place where you might just accept anything.
You may already have considered the following to guide you on your path:
- The likelihood of a partnership offer from your own firm or another, based on internal feedback on your partnership prospects
- The strength of your experience/practice, and its compatibility with the partnership needs of your own and/or other firms
- A shortlist of firms with the right kind of brand/reputation for your practice, together with good growth/profitability prospects in this difficult market, and
- An understanding of the income you want to achieve, balanced against the contributions you will be expected to make as you rise through the firm.
What may fall further down the list is a consideration of the partnership culture. But that’s exactly what you’ll be signing up for when you eventually get hold of that partnership agreement.
Take the on-going tale of Mark Abell. Okay, you could hardly say he’s done badly for himself. As a lead partner in a major IP and IT practice, he has enjoyed considerable power (and a hefty income to boot) over many years.
But when he came to resign from his firm earlier this year, he found himself embroiled in a dispute that seems to centre on his contravention (or otherwise) of the firm’s partnership agreement.
Peel back the layers (or lawyers) a bit further, and you’ll find that partnership disputes are not new to Abell or his former firm.
Actually, they seem to be almost part of the culture – at least, a natural consequence of growing on the back of some big legal hitters.
That’s fine if you fancy the thrill of the power struggle. Get to the top, and you can look forward to making big bucks in this kind of environment. But it would also likely be a nightmare for those who dream of a more traditional, collegiate, partnership culture.
So: consider the culture. As an associate on the partnership track, success means getting under the skin of the partnership in which you’ll hopefully be operating for many years:
- Any interview advice will tell you to gem up on the firm. But if you’re looking for a firm with a long-term partnership future, go beyond market strengths, financial health and brand positioning. Think too about the culture and whether it will suit your mind-set and approach to work/clients.
- Salary is important, but biggest isn’t always best. Consider the prospective firm’s partnership compensation model carefully. It will tell you a lot about the working culture that supports it.
- What do you know about the firm’s partnership agreements? Does it go in for severe restrictive covenants? Do you know of any history of partnership disputes? You may want to avoid a firm that smacks of civil war (unless that kind of excitement floats your boat).
- You may improve your partnership prospects if you move from a top-tier firm to a smaller operation. But there’ll likely be a compromise, whether to your salary prospects or status. And it will be difficult to move back up the chain again.
- Likewise, if you are lucky enough to get offered a partnership in a top-tier firm, make sure it’s the right choice for you. The larger, elite firms have the power of brand to institutionalise clients making it very difficult for partners to build client followings. This may make it difficult for you to move on anywhere else.
In this brave new world of dwindling partnership prospects, it can be difficult for associates to get into the mind-set of choice. Just to get a partnership offer seems like ambition enough, especially where other associates are still getting made redundant.
But don’t accept just anything. You don’t want to join the hoard of lawyers who hate their jobs. CP