Being a principal in a law firm (whether as a partner or director) is, in my opinion, more of an art than a science and definitely not for everyone. Working out if it’s for you can be stressful, but in my experience, there are some key personal attributes that you’ll want to have if you’re going to give it a try and succeed.
An increasing number of law firms are becoming incorporated for a variety of reasons, so principals in those firms are, of course, directors rather than partners. However, the common theme of moving from being an “employee” to a “principal” is the same whether a firm operates as a partnership or is incorporated. This article will focus on those common, underlying themes and for simplicity I will be referring generically to “partnerships”, realising there are some differences between the two legal structures.
What makes a partner great?
I know many smart, hard-working lawyers who were not made partners or, if they were made partners, it didn’t work out for them. Why is that? What is it that distinguishes those lawyers who “have what it takes” from the others? Here’s what I’ve noticed makes partners great beyond brains and hard work:
Commericiality: Law is, indeed, a profession, but it is also a business. I don’t think being professional and entrepreneurial is mutually exclusive and the best lawyers combine both capabilities. They are self-starters, willing to take calculated risks, do instinctive cost/benefit analyses when making decisions, know when to hold and when to fold and build flourishing practices. You don’t have to love being an entrepreneur to be considered for partnership, but some entrepreneurial ability will help. Law firms rarely make partners of “grinders”, but they do look for “minders and finders”.
Leadership: The reality is that lawyers who are capable leaders are more likely to be offered partnership. People look up to them, they have influence, they instill confidence in others, they care about the people who report to them and they unflinchingly make tough decisions and are accountable for the results. These are all attributes of successful leaders and successful partners.
Relationship Building: Those lawyers who quickly and reliably establish high trust relationships with colleagues and clients are most likely to be successful. As part of this, it’s important to be a good team player and a good sport. Certainly pursue the things that are important to you individually, but do so in a way that doesn’t burn bridges.
Practicality: Because success in the practice of law is also about running a business, it’s helpful to be practical. Ultimately, it’s about judgement and some level of self-discipline. You need to gauge accurately what a client needs and the amount of work you do so that the client is pleased and your bill is paid. Similarly, you should pursue the legal issues that are appropriate, while avoid going off on interesting tangents. Further, it’s critical to have what I think of as a “customer service orientation”.
Humour and Objectivity: Those people who can approach themselves and their work with a certain amount of humour and objectivity will likely be appreciated within any law firm. Being able to see yourself and others with an appropriate degree of perspective, while not trivialising things that matter, is a real skill.
Creativity and innovation: Despite the focus on precedents and structure in the law, having a certain level of creativity and innovation can be a critical differentiator for potential partners. Those lawyers who are creative and innovative are also often remarkably resourceful. Ultimately, clients expect partners to get results and thinking outside of the box, while being very professional, can be a winning combination.
Communication skills: The best lawyers are excellent oral and written communicators and also capable listeners. They may have strong egos, but they don’t let hubris get in the way of their ability to communicate well.
Flexibility: Being rigid and having tunnel vision can keep you focused, but long term it can be a problem for a potential partner. Flexible people figure out what needs to be done, consider various ways of accomplishing that and collaborate fluidly with others, while retaining their individuality.
Is it for you?
If you are considering seeking partnership, ask yourself these questions:
To what extent do I enjoy building a practice versus doing the legal work?
How comfortable and adept am I at building and running a high functioning, high morale team and delegating as much work to team members as I possibly can?
What do I do when I don’t have enough work in my pipeline to keep myself and others busy?
How good am I at managing myself around other people when under stress, so I consistently lead by example?
How adept am I at being both competitive and collaborative with my professional colleagues, especially my potential future partners?
How do I address issues of profitability versus consistent high quality legal work?
To what extent do I view change as problematic and stressful, rather than as an opportunity?
How do I integrate being an excellent team player with being a well-defined individual?
How do I deal with failure, especially in situations where “the buck has stopped with me”?
How comfortable am I with having no guarantees of financial success other than that which my partners and I create day to day, billable hour by billable hour?
If I have to reinvent myself professionally due to changing circumstances, am I resilient and creative enough to do so?
Be honest with yourself when answering these questions, as this will give you some inkling about your likely appetite for partnership. Assess your own capabilities critically. If you have some professional and/or personal developmental needs, consider working on them sooner rather than later. It’s likely that merely becoming a partner will not alone address those deficiencies. Others may look at you somewhat differently when you don the mantle of partnership, but that will only get you so far.
Long-term success as a partner
Assuming you become a partner, there is likely to be some good news and some bad news. You will have, indeed, achieved considerable professional success and will have worked hard to do so. However, you will not have “arrived”, but rather will be embarking on yet another arduous but potentially fulfilling journey. It will not take long for this reality to set in.
That said, I have noticed two factors that sustain partners and partnerships over the long haul. They are shared core values and collegiality.
By “core values” I do not mean the “public” values a firm articulates on its website. Instead, I mean the way things actually happen, typically based on unspoken priorities. For example, if there is a choice between doing something that is profitable versus something that might conflict with the firm’s public core values, what does the firm do? How are nonprofessional staff treated within the firm and to what extent does this reflect a hierarchical structure versus a more egalitarian one? And so forth. Try to understand these core values and make sure they resonate with you.
Although I don’t think it is essential to like all of your partners, I do think it is critical that you respect and trust them. This is the collegiality that provides the glue to hold a firm together. Internal politicking, scapegoating, indirect communication, grudges and the like can create a chronically toxic environment. Lawyers will often leave a firm not because they dislike the work or feel under-compensated, but because they don’t trust and respect their partners. Pay attention to the culture of the firm because it does matter long term.
Is becoming a partner finding the Holy Grail, or will it be a cross to bear? It may take some time to find out, but you’ll never regret having given it some thought along the way.
Emily Morrow www.emilymorrow.com was a senior partner with a large firm in the United States. She now resides in Auckland, is a member of the Law Society’s Culture Change Taskforce and provides tailored consulting services for the legal profession.