Want to be great, rather than good? These hints will help you on your way

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There is a route to becoming a successful partner in a law firm. Problem is it’s not an obvious one. The skills and personal qualities that you will need to climb the lower rungs of the legal ladder are not necessarily the same as those that will enable you to fly from the top.

At some point you will need to make a transition: from productive and generally acquiescent employee to self-starting business developer and revenue generator. Developing the right skills at the right time to get noticed for a partnership track requires ingenuity, tenacity and a fair dose of good luck.

And once you’ve made it, you’ll need to prove you can indeed win your own clients, build a practice and generate your own revenue. You’ll need to be technically brilliant as well as commercially astute. A flair for leadership won’t go amiss either.

Hot partners

Looking at some of the partners who made it onto The Lawyer’s ‘Hot 100’ list 2014 gives some indication as to what’s considered great partner material these days. Yes, heading up big deals remains pretty critical.

Take Louise Nash, London corporate partner at Covington & Burling. She only accepted a position on the firm’s eight-partner global management committee on the condition that she could continue practising. And deals have flowed – for example, her role in the £4.6bn takeover of Nokia by Microsoft.

But it’s also obvious that being a great lawyer isn’t enough. The list is full of those with an eye for good business too. There are those that have secured a host of revenue-boosting lateral hires or spearheaded innovative coalitions, such as bringing together councils and law firms to offer combined legal services to public sector clients.

And this is before you consider those that have been specifically listed for their management prowess. Here, you’re getting the managing and senior partners who have embedded their brand in new markets, executed ground-breaking mergers or developed fresh ideas around client management and the delivery of legal services.

Six Year Itch

If you have ambitions to join this merry band, you’ll have to shape your career carefully. By around six years PQE, you’ll need to have transitioned from a useful junior who wades through the work that senior associates and partners don’t want to do into a lawyer with more than a glimpse of technical brilliance and strong business instinct.

The following five tips might help:

  1. Ensure you’re with a firm where your practice specialism is on the up. It doesn’t matter what potential you might have for partnership. If there are no openings for partner roles in your practice group, then you’re stuck.
  2. If you’re working for a firm that has business values and a culture you dislike, then move. The great partners don’t just love law, they’re passionate about their firm too. You’re unlikely to make it to partnership or beyond in a firm you despise. And, no, they’re not all the same.
  3. Choose a firm that really understands the new demands of partnership. Seek out one that doesn’t just offer training programmes, but also one-to-one coaching and mentoring to support the more personal development of leadership and business development skills.
  4. Love teamwork. Yes, you may go far as a stand-alone star, but you’ll likely go further with the right allies on side. Network internally, get to know the rising stars, seek mentors who can help point you in the right direction, and get acquainted early with those who make the key partnership decisions.
  5. Show willing. Come up with ideas to better market your group, find new business/clients or deliver services better. Take time to research market trends in the context of both your competitors and clients, and understand the broader business context of everything you do. It may be hard when you have a million and one other targets, but this is the work that will make you stand out and embed the skills you need for a successful partnership.

There are those that say that today’s law firm partnerships are not worth the effort. But tell that to the Hot 100 who have discovered the wealth of opportunity in being a law firm partner in 2014 – from being a star deal-maker to business leader on a truly global scale.

For them and others, a modern law firm partnership is not so much a personal sacrifice as a world of possibility. CP

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