5 Tips to Prepare Associates for Partnership

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By Jim Tam and Colleen Torell
November 02, 2021
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John was a hard driving senior associate at one of the most respected law firms in the city. Over the last 8 years, he brought in an impressive amount of business, consistently billed over 2,500 hours a year, and earned high praise from his department leaders and clients. But when the most recent partnership vote came around, he was passed over again. John is perplexed and frustrated and now has no choice but to leave the firm.

This scenario plays out all too often for high-performing attorneys like John who on the surface appear to be outstanding candidates for partnership though are viewed by firm owners as lacking in skills deemed critical to steward the firm.

Of course, bringing in new business and generating revenue for the firm are always key criteria for partnership. However, it takes more than business development and superior legal knowledge to be elevated to partner. Associates must demonstrate they are not only valuable but also likable to be considered. In addition to their legal expertise, hard skills such as financial acumen, and proficiency with technology are essential skills every partner candidate must possess. Furthermore, they must also demonstrate they are a good cultural fit for the firm; decision-makers expect to see that associates are team players, work collaboratively with office staff, demonstrate political savvy and high EQ, champion diversity, and are actively involved in their communities before voting them into the partnership circle.

What can a firm do to ensure their high-potential associates are well-rounded, so that they have a chance to be a partner? Here are a few immediate things firms can do:

1) Mentoring

Partners that exemplify the firm’s values should mentor high-potential associates. There is no substitute for having positive role models to emulate. It is also important to put some structure around the mentoring process to gain commitment from both sides. Although some mentor/mentee relationships develop naturally, anything you can do to initiate interaction will help get the process started. This can simply be encouraging bi-monthly or quarterly conversations, brown bag lunches, social events, etc. In-person meet-ups may be a little more challenging as firms continue to evolve workplace norms in response to COVID, with hybrid and work-from-home schedules necessitating flexibility on both sides.

2) Tech Training

It is critical for associates and all legal staff to keep pace with the emergence of new technology in the legal industry. Associates need to be as comfortable using the latest LegalTech tools as they are using email. A solid grasp of technology will not only make their lives easier, but it will also enable them to speak intelligently to clients and prospects about topics like AI, blockchain, cybersecurity, and other trending concepts in the world of technology.

3) Private Coaching

Often, a mentor or manager is not the best person to coach and develop an associate. In an industry that’s measured by billable hours, it is difficult for partners to dedicate time to observe and develop an associate. (Unfortunate but it’s reality.) There’s an emerging trend for firms to retain a third-party, executive coach for their high-potential associates. An executive coach can provide an objective, non-judgmental point-of-view which may help the individual realize things about themselves and how they show up to others triggering a breakthrough. The coach will monitor the individual’s progress towards his/her developmental goals and hold them accountable. In addition, all conversations are kept confidential eliminating much of the vulnerability an associate may feel in having conversations with someone within the firm.

4) External Activities

Partners often act as the face of the firm. Therefore, it’s important to encourage associates to get comfortable being in public and representing the firm. Community activities, public speaking opportunities, or serving on volunteer boards are excellent ways for the associate to promote the firm and their own personal brand. These activities can be done as a team or have each associate commit to doing something they feel passionate about. This will not only promote the firm in the community but also allow the associate to expand their network and potentially bring in new business.

5) Regular Communication and Feedback

If there’s not already one in place, there should be a feedback process instituted to let the associate know what they need to do to become partner material. If being promoted to partner is more than just doing quality work and bringing in business, then the associate needs to know what those criteria are. Furthermore, feedback should be communicated regularly to the associate, so they know how they are doing against these standards to ensure they stay on track.

Final Word

We’ve focused on attorneys here, however, these guidelines apply to any profession in which you have really smart individuals who are subject-matter-experts. Many individuals with specific skills such as IT programmers, scientists, CPAs, may have proven mastery of a technical or functional role, but these individuals may not have developed the softer skills necessary for them to lead teams or run organizations. If you have individuals who are high-performers and have the desire to run a team or department, you may want to invest in developing the other skills now to prepare them to be effective leaders for your organization in the future.

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