Making partner is not an end in itself but the first step in what one hopes will be a rewarding role and a happy personal and professional experience.

Many firms now have quite sophisticated (or protracted at least) selection processes to admit new partners, and these processes often allow candidates to learn more about themselves and how they wish to operate. If used properly, selection procedures can also provide an agenda for your development and an indication of what you should focus on to make this change even more successful.

An immediate priority is to demonstrate and reassure your partners – now your peers – that they made the right decision in making you a partner. A key aspect of your job is to grow a sustainable business, which increases the size of the profit pie for the benefit of all the partners: in today’s increasingly competitive and performance-driven firms, partners who fail to increase the partnership’s profits year on year are unlikely to survive for long.

The one thing that you cannot afford to do on making partner is to continue working and behaving as though nothing has changed. You must stop acting and behaving as a senior associate or a director from the outset! What very few partners will tell you is that over the next six to 12 months the work that you were given by partners as a director or senior associate will dry up – the tap will be turned off, as you are now expected to be able to feed yourself and your team.

As a recently promoted partner it’s highly likely that you will be given management responsibility either in your department or firm wide; in fact, your personal business development plan probably stated where your management and leadership skills would be best applied in the firm! Even though your new management responsibilities will limit the amount of time you have for developing your people and practice, you must accept your new responsibilities as they will help to increase your profile in the partnership generally and almost definitely help you acquire new skills.

Partners’ responsibilities are wide-ranging and not always well defined or communicated. What do you need to do to survive and ensure a successful career?

  • Adopt the mind-set of an owner

    As a partner, you are now an owner of your firm. What does this mean in practice? It means that you are now looking at and operating in a much bigger landscape than before. Put simply, it means that you will have to care about, and perhaps have specific responsibilities in respect of, people (employees, colleagues, and clients), client service and satisfaction, the reputation of your firm, business development and everything that is essential to your firm’s success.  In addition you will be required to adopt a firm-centred approach in viewing your role and responsibilities, and not just be focused on your particular specialism. This can be a steep learning curve as you have probably been rewarded and promoted for doing precisely the opposite!

    An owner’s mind-set means recognising and accepting from day one that all partners must generate business, manage the firm, market the firm, train employees and invest in the future of their firm. The business risk or success of the firm rests with the partners, who are stewards of the firm with an implied responsibility to pass it on to future generations in as good, if not better, shape.

    Owners invest in the business. Firms need to invest capital in technology, talent acquisition and development, marketing, business development, training and coaching.

    Equity partners must contribute in a variety of ways.  They will share risk and reward, invest non-billable time and capital in the business, be accountable – uphold the firm’s values and expectations and be accountable to each other.

    As a new partner, you are also an ambassador for the firm and with your partners you now speak for it.

  • Market yourself

    In this context, marketing is not the targeted, client-specific activities that lead to business generation. It’s about how your business responds in a client-centric fashion in order to grow your business. It can mean speaking, writing, teaching, professional and community service that increase the firm’s and partners’ status by raising the profile, image and brand awareness in the communities that it operates in.

    Be sure to understand the marketing strategy of the firm and assess your plans and activities to ensure that nothing you are doing contradicts or is at odds with the overall aims of the firm.

  • Celebrate your arrival

    Do take some time to celebrate your achievement and reflect on what you have accomplished; it’s not every day that you make partner.

  • Tell people about your promotion

    Your promotion into the partnership is a massive achievement, a good news story and a marketing opportunity – spread the word using LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, email, local papers, professional journals and the phone. When your firm announces your new role, ask them to provide press releases to local and national business media. Make sure you personally call your clients, professional intermediaries, friends and acquaintances to tell them about attaining partnership. When sending materials to clients, tailor the announcement to include information about how your new status can help you better serve their needs. Since existing clients are key sources of referrals, they will be important in creating demand for your firm’s services.

  • Identify your niche

    ‘Inheriting’ a partner’s portfolio can be both a blessing and a curse: it initially saves you time to grow your own business. However, you shouldn’t rely on it, assume it will be profitable and in good health, or expect it to sustain you for the rest of your career as a partner. You must build on what you have been given and prove that you can get your own clients.

    Decide what you are going to be known for.  What is your personal brand in terms of the work that you do and how you do it?  The more differentiated you are, the more memorable you will become.  If you haven’t already done so, select a niche based on your knowledge and experience, bearing in mind sector trends and competition. Be warned however that this can easily be misinterpreted as ‘ploughing your own furrow’ and not being sufficiently a team player. The glue sustaining partnerships is mutual respect and support; there will probably be pressure to cross-sell and work with your colleagues and partners to present a seamless level of excellence. Develop those relationships within the partnership where the greatest synergies exist and where there are none – remember cross-selling works both ways.

  • Become a business partner

    Demonstrating your business development ability is one of the most significant differences between equity and non-equity status.  As a partner you must ‘pay your way’ and keep one or more people busy day-in and day-out through a combination of your ‘own’ business and by growing existing client relationships developed by other partners. The changing standards of ownership means that most firms require their equity partners to have both a strong client following and track record for generating and winning business from existing and new clients before they will be considered for full equity partnership.  Depending on the type of firm, this may mean origination, or it may mean something different.  Unless the partner is particularly important to the clients, their long-term prospects are weak.

    Your job is no longer just dealing with individual legal issues; it is to be a full partner in your client’s business. Clients expect their lawyers to know them and their business; they want a partner who is not only reactive to legal issues, but also forward thinking in identifying their needs and proposing solutions to problems that have yet to emerge.  Get to know your client’s business from every perspective – what are their strategic goals?  How do they plan to achieve them and what legal advice might they need along the way?  Research their industry and embrace their business goals, not just legal issues, as your own.

    Be proactive. As a partner, you now have greater authority to initiate discussions and explore client’s needs and objectives. Identify business opportunities for the client (not only for your firm) and then help your client to exploit them. In the process, use your firm’s resources and introduce key contacts to partners in your firm who can advise them. Your goal is to develop relationships for the benefit of the whole firm.

    In addition to doing the above, use these opportunities to generate business for the firm – after all, most new business comes from existing clients. However, your positive client relationships will not mean much if they don’t translate into billable work. By whatever means, build a book of business.  It’s one of the most important things you must do.

  • Get to know your partners

    Like it or not, there are politics in every firm and your firm is no exception. To get ahead you will need allies – powerful ones.  You should recognise that anyone in your firm can be important to the success of your career.  Be professional and courteous to everyone you work with.  Avoid the temptation to advance by taking corners or stabbing others in the back (such behaviour will inevitably come back to haunt you).

  • Listen and learn from your more experienced and accomplished partners

    As a new partner, you will need time before you become comfortable with your partner colleagues and them with you. It may help to remember that you are the newest member of their club. Don’t rush the relationship – making the wrong first impression may set you back. Make time to listen and learn from more experienced and successful partners – ask questions, listen and think carefully before you proceed to tell them your views on what is wrong with the partnership and how you’d like to change things around here!

    Invest time in meeting and getting to know partners in your practice group, department, sector, and firm wide.

    Your aim is to get to know them better as individuals and also to find out what they are trying to achieve in their part of the practice.  Make sure you ask them these simple (but easily overlooked) questions:

    • What is the biggest thing you are working on right now?
    • Who or what is your ideal client? And, how will I recognise them when I am out and about?
    • What sorts of things will I hear or see if I meet a good prospect for you?
    • Who are your top ten prospects? (You may be able to introduce them to one of their business development targets)

    Maintaining regular contact with your partners and colleagues is an important aspect of a partner’s role – developing strong constructive relationships means you can draw on their support, advice and guidance when you need it.

  • Business development

    Every partner is expected to actively participate in and contribute to business development for themselves and with others. In today’s highly competitive, entrepreneurial environment, business development is the responsibility of all the owners of the firm.  Every owner must have the same level of commitment and must contribute to growth and regeneration.

    A strong business development track-record is one of the most important differences between equity and non-equity status.  A senior associate may be promoted to non-equity status with minimal evidence of their ability to develop and attract clients.  Non-equity partners must demonstrate an ability to manage and retain clients, to supervise and train non-partners or practice at a very specialist technical level to be considered for equity partnership.  Equity partners should be net exporters of work – they must generate a book of business in excess of the amount they personally work, however, they cannot be expected in the long term to provide work laterally to partners who should develop and generate their own work.

    As a new partner, your goal is to become self-sufficient within a reasonable period of time.  You are now in a position to use the firm’s brand and your personal market presence for marketing and business development, and collaborate with your partners in doing so.  You are expected to work hard in delivering legal work and selling business.

    There are many ways of delivering your business development responsibilities, and no one size fits all.  Many partners are daunted (and terrified) by their business development role, and if, like them, you don’t understand what it is or know how to engage in business development, don’t hesitate to ask for marketing and business development skills coaching and support.

    Even if you if you believe you know how to do it, continue to learn – it’s a career-long pursuit. There are approaches, skills and processes that you can learn and develop to generate business.  Ask for support and training from a business development specialist – this could be your director of business development or an external specialist.

    • Work with your partners to find ways to integrate your skills into their practices. For example, as a litigator, rather than waiting for your corporate partner to send you a case, work with that corporate partner to become the litigation lead for important clients.  Once a client accepts you as its ‘go-to’ litigator, it means little whether you are the ‘relationship’ or ‘originating’ partner.  The client values your contribution, as well as your corporate partner.
    • Collaborate with your partners and colleagues to find potential business opportunities and marketing tactics. Identify opportunities to promote multiple practice areas simultaneously, and as previously mentioned, cross-sell new expertise to existing clients.  Provide and ask for introductions to clients who may benefit from more support.
    • Networking is an important aspect of business development. You need to raise your profile and increase your contracts. If you haven’t already, now is the time to get out there and raise your profile as an expert. Where can you seek out opportunities to speak at firm seminars, external events and conferences?  Build and leverage alliances within your firm and with other key players in your sector by investing time in sector and networking events.
    • Take advantage of the information, tools and people at your disposal to be more targeted in your business generation activities.
    • Consider becoming more active in key sector groups to further raise your profile; write articles that address legal or social issues in your area of expertise. Offer your services to community organisations – taking these steps will raise the profiles of both you and your firm. Internally, raise your profile by joining and contributing to management working parties and projects.
    • Since existing clients are key sources of referrals, they will be important in creating demand for your firm’s services. Take advantage of social media and ensure your LinkedIn profile reflects your expertise.
  • Invest in your firm and your role of firm leader

    Managing partners and practice group leaders are not the only leaders in your firm. What are you going to do to build the firm’s capabilities and increase its competitiveness?  As a partner, there are many ways you can contribute beyond bringing in fees:

    • Understand your firm’s strategy and how you as an individual partner can help the firm to deliver its goals
    • Volunteer for firm committees and active participating (don’t just sign-up, turn-up)
    • Accept positions of leadership such as chairing committees and ensure you deliver
    • Play an active and positive role in partnership affairs
    • Represent your firm on external organisations, professional bodies, etc.
    • Participate in a working group to improve services and innovation; value can be added by developing new, efficient approaches to projects and matters to, for example, improve profitability, test new staffing models, develop knowledge management systems and improve client satisfaction
    • Sharing your knowledge and skills – you can participate in the development of associates into effective and economically viable professionals and future partners through mentoring, training and coaching
    • Participate in the firm’s graduate recruitment process and programme.
  • Get to know your team

    Getting to know your team is time well-spent – after all, they are critical to your success as a partner.   Early contact with your team members will help to build a ‘one team’ approach. If you are going to have the time to develop a partner-size client portfolio, you need a team you can trust to service your clients.   It’s also important to hold on to good associates who are capable of delivering quality work.  After all, the less client work you have to personally do, the more time you have for business development activities or higher value work.

    Arrange one-to-one meetings with your direct reports and find out:

    • What are their career aspirations?
    • What skills, knowledge or experiences do they need to acquire to either perform in their role or get to the next?
    • What do they need from you to perform at their best?
    • How are do they prefer to be managed?

    Where practical, arrange a meeting of your whole team where you can discuss your plans, gain important feedback and establish two-way communication which will help to ensure that your team members feel more engaged in your practice’s activities, hopefully resulting in greater productivity.

  • Learn to delegate more

    An important quality of a leader is knowing when and how to delegate.  Now that you are a partner, clients expect you to play a different role in the management of their business.  If your charge-out rate is higher now that you are a partner, some clients may be concerned about paying you more for doing the same work that you did before your promotion. You will need to be clear about the added value you are delivering now that you are a partner and make sure you are focused on partner-level work.

    Clients will increasingly see you as someone who should oversee their matters and delegate more to your associates and expect you to provide this at a reasonable cost.  Developing these skills will be integral both to minimising non-billable hours and to retaining your clients’ loyalty.

    Force yourself to delegate, even when you don’t have enough other work to do.  Don’t use this as an excuse, go out and get work. The quickest route to lacklustre performance and poor profitability for many firms is having partners holding on to work that associates should be doing.

  • Invest and develop your skills

    Most firms invest in training and development for their non-partners but do less to make sure that partner skills continue to be developed.

    Partners who don’t regularly develop existing or new skills can expect to stagnate – those who continue to practice in the same way over the years will see their practices increasingly commoditised and squeezed on price, and their services less in demand.  Ultimately, partners in these situations will find themselves left behind by their firms, as they try to focus on the stronger and more lucrative areas of the practice.

    How can you ensure that your skills remain up-to-date?

    • Make time to push the boundaries of your practice. Keep up with your CPD by teaching some of the courses.  Write articles – enabling you to stay ahead of your peers and raise your profile.  Become an expert and known for it.  Make a commitment to career-long learning and development
    • Take advantage of any formal leadership development opportunities that come-up and find out what is available elsewhere if it isn’t provided within your firm
    • Offer to mentor and develop associates and senior associates; that way you will learn from them too.
    • Work with colleagues in your practice group to ensure that you support and work together rather than in silos
    • Focus your skills on specific sectors and industries to develop and exploit your areas of expertise
    • Make a habit of looking at the websites of your competitors – what are they offering and what does this mean for your practice now and in the future?
    • Crucially, do not be passive about your career. Manage it and make sure you have a plan to fulfil the role expected, seeking out opportunities to develop and being reasonably assertive in both acknowledging your development needs and getting the support you require.
  • Deliver on your financial targets

    The quickest way to take the shine off your partner career is to fail financially. The first rule is that you must cover your costs, plus your share of the overheads.

    This is the very minimum that is expected of you by your partners. Unlike when you were a senior associate or director, it is your responsibility to make sure that your team’s client work adds value to the firm by making a profit for your team, even if a small one.  If you acquire a reputation for continually failing to achieve your targets you are highly unlikely to progress up the equity ladder, and may even be asked to leave the partnership.

    Also get to know the finance team, and where perhaps you don’t understand or are unfamiliar with the financial reports that you’ll now receive, ask someone in the team to take you through it. Too many partners are afraid to ask, and sometimes get unpleasant surprises when they avoid basic financial data.

  • Work with your team to reduce your WIP and lockup

    Actively manage your practice and focus on meeting your billing and collections, proper leverage, strong realisation and profitability.

    All your excellent work won’t count if you don’t record, bill and collect all cash as promptly as possible. Ensure that you get every piece of work you have won recorded and billed for the year. Your financial metrics may influence how well your performance will be judged by your fellow partners.

  • Understand how your performance will be measured

    In coaching new partners, we stress the importance of finding out and understanding how firms measure performance, and in particular:

    • How are partners measured and rewarded?
    • What are partners’ annual earnings targets and charge-out rates?
    • What does this mean for you, at the first rung of the equity ladder?
    • Partner performance reviews are increasingly common in professional services; the standard partner performance criteria cover:
      • Client service and relationship management;
      • Revenue and profit generation;
      • Leadership and management;
      • Supporting the firm’s values and vision;
      • Contribution to strategic goals.

In conclusion

Becoming a partner is a very significant achievement and as stated earlier – enjoy it and celebrate your success.  It is probably a period of major and lasting changes in your relationship with your firm and former employer.

The areas discussed above are just some of the ways of doing things which are inherent in the partnership role and, some, if not all, of this will have occurred to you already. But it, when thinking about your new role it does not engender a sense of both anxiety and excitement then you may not have appreciated the full extent of what being a partner will mean for you. Some new partners may even be quite petrified because what seemed a natural career progression and what you always wanted is suddenly very daunting. All of these reactions are quite natural.

We have in this article focused on that which is expected of a partner; hopefully,  you will  also  achieve  significantly enhanced financial rewards as well as a real stake in something  of which you can be proud. Over time, you will also see the very best of partnership and understand first-hand how people, when challenged and enthused, can work together to achieve terrific things.

You have done all the right things, been seen to be a person of potential and overcome many hurdles to get to where you are.

At the outset, it was stated that partnership is not an end in itself but, a beginning. This transition needs to be managed by those around you in the partnership, and by you. Having the confidence to recognise where you are strong and crucially where you are weaker is a very sound basis for a successful career; those things which you don’t know and perhaps never needed to know will now become paramount in how you approach the role and responsibilities of a partner.

Given the magnitude of the changes set out in this article, getting help is essential and this may mean support tailored to meet your specific needs. At the same time, it is important to  recognise that knowing what is expected of you is the first step however, being able to deliver may take  more time and help. As a new partner how are you going to manage the risk of not getting this right? How are you going to manage things so that your partner career is the enjoyable, rewarding and satisfying experience you felt sure it would be?

At EA we work with individuals and groups who are planning or currently in the process of great change. While not sector specific, we have a wealth of experience in supporting both individuals and firms operating in highly-driven, intellectually rich environments.

Being a new partner can, and should, be enjoyable, rewarding and satisfying. Ensure that you have the support that you need to ensure that it is the positive experience that you have worked so hard to achieve.

Written by Jo Larbie and John F. Renz