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Are you partner or director material?

30 June 2017 - By Kate Geenty

Not every great lawyer will suit a partnership or management role. How can you tell if you’re cut out for management or partnership? And should you ever walk away from a promotion or partnership/directorship offer?

Personal coach Martin Wilson used to be a partner in a large commercial corporate law firm, but it wasn’t a role he was entirely comfortable with. He knew when he accepted the partnership offer that the role wasn’t right for him, but ignored his doubts and signed up.

A tailor's dummy and measuring tape

“I knew in my heart that this size firm wasn’t a good fit for me, but it seemed crazy to turn down the offer. I never expected to be offered a partnership in a firm like that and I had pressure from older generation family saying ‘you’ve got to accept it, why would you turn down something like that?’ So my ego got in the way, and I chose ego over soul.”

Mr Wilson left the commercial firm after a few years and entered a phase of self-reflection/assessment.

“It started to awaken in me that I’m actually better in smaller organisations, more of an owner-operator with less or no partnership considerations and less management accountability to others, other than myself and a few external authorities.

“I’d spent a number of years thinking I needed to work with others, I needed the support and the relationships. That I needed the financial remuneration that came with a bigger outfit. And I do to some extent, but not anywhere near the extent I was thinking.”

He went on to run his own law firm for much of the next 11 years (five years in partnership with someone else), before retraining as a professional coach, and setting up Selfmade Coaching in 2001.

Values and needs

His advice to people who are weighing up whether to take a new position is to do some kind of ‘values and needs’ assessment.

“Look for an ‘intersection’ between your skills and experience, what you enjoy doing, and how you want to make a difference in the world in some small or big way. Then ask yourself if this job opportunity intersects with those things. In my experience most people don’t do that assessment in any considered or thorough way, but it’s a really valuable one to make,” he says.

An ability to look at broader criteria than just status and financial security is also important. “What are your strengths, your weaknesses, your skill set, interests, and life and career goals? Try also to get clarity around ‘what’s the life that wants to live in me’ as opposed to simply ‘the life I might live’, to borrow an idea from educator and writer, Parker Palmer. Weigh those things up against the requirements of the job and see if it’s a good fit.”

Do you have what it takes?

Lawyers often don’t realise what stepping up to partnership or management entails, says Jennifer Little, who runs JLR, a specialist lawyer and executive search firm.

“They might be educated in the law and not business and management – I think few are prepared for what is really involved.”

A range of different skills are needed to run a business and manage staff, with people skills the most important. Ms Little says a good partner or manager will enjoy investing in people and seeing them develop and grow.

“You need to value people and you need to be a good people manager, capable of leading, training and developing people. I think if investing in people isn’t your gig then don’t take on a management role.”

You also need to be prepared to have honest and candid conversations with your staff.

“A lot of partners and directors shy away from having courageous conversations. A boss is not going to be everybody’s mate. A boss is there to establish strategic direction and to lead by example,” she says.

Ms Little says partners and managers need to be willing to delegate work rather then hold on to it, as this shows a level of trust and confidence in their staff. “I think partners and directors also need to be transparent with their employees to help them realise the end goal.”

Is partnership the be-all and end-all?

Partnership is not necessarily the ultimate goal for ambitious lawyers any more, says Ms Little.

“I think a lot of lawyers don’t have aspirations to partnership these days for numerous reasons – lifestyle is more important to them, or they don’t want to take on debt, they don’t want to manage a team, they don’t want the stress that comes with ownership of worrying about overheads, insurance, and compliance issues.

“I think talent is highly mobile and partners really need to look after and retain those valued and consistent performers. There’s still a place for them, even if they are not an owner.”

The alternatives if you decide against stepping up

If you’ve had a decent think about an opportunity and decide that it’s not the right fit, it might just be a case of one door closing and another one opening. Turning down an offer can be a light bulb moment, a realisation of what doesn’t make you happy and an opportunity to think about what might be more fulfilling, says Martin Wilson.

“More to the point, it’s about grasping the opportunity to be true to yourself, as opposed to meeting others’ approval or giving excessive weight to financial security, much of which is unconscious conditioning playing out at the expense of one’s heart and soul. It’s difficult, but the price you pay longer term for not being true to yourself (for not realising your essence), or not embracing change or growing is far, far greater.”

Last updated on the 30th June 2017