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Building a business case: how to achieve partnership

Written by: The Lawyer
Published on: 27 Feb 2017

One of the questions we hear more regularly than any other is from senior associates who are seeking advice on how to achieve partnership at their own firm, or elsewhere.

It goes without saying that for promotion to become a realistic prospect, there first and foremost needs to be a clear and defined business case. This will either be based on having a robust following or by there being a strategic need from the client. This can be anything from succession planning as key partners move towards retirement, growth in an area due to the firm’s profile for that work, or key clients needing advice in new specialist areas of law that the firm wants to service. More often than not, it ends up being a combination of both.

Client following

For many firms this remains a key consideration, and for many candidates it causes the most concern. On the whole, most associates don’t feel comfortable about guaranteeing or committing to a certain level of revenue. This might be due to the naturally cautious disposition of lawyers, but it is vitally important to be confident about one’s ability to win work. But how do you qualify and present this?

When we work with candidates who are looking for partnership, we advise them to start by categorising their clients into three groups;

  1. Those that you would feel disappointed about were they not to instruct you within the first 12 months.
  2. Those that you would feel disappointed about were they not to instruct you within 24 months.
  3. Those that fall outside of two years.

If you are putting this together as part of an external application, one should also consider:

  • The clients of the new firm that you can provide additional legal services to.
  • The profile of the new firm and how this can help generate more work from your existing clients and raise your profile in the market, making it easier to secure new clients.

The majority of candidates who do this are usually pleasantly surprised by how strong their following actually is.

In working out the above, you will need to consider which (of your) clients actually view you as their trusted adviser. That client may be a long-established client of your firm, but should you become their go-to person within your specific area, this will certainly help your case when making an internal application for partnership. All firms are keen to strengthen their relationships with key clients and if you can help your firm to achieve this goal, it will strengthen the strategic case for your promotion.

By the same token, if an external firm has a strong relationship with one of your clients but not in your area, it can help secure a move even when your following is lower than typical expectations.

Review regularly

The advice we give everyone is that you should try to review your career every couple of years. This does not mean you should move every two years, but assess your current role and ensure it is supporting your progression and career path. For junior lawyers, this can be as simple as ensuring you are challenged technically or getting exposure to the work you need to become an expert in your field.

As you move up the ladder towards senior associate, your technical skills are established and the question of whether there is a route to partnership depends on a few factors:

1) Is there a strategic need in your department to grow the partnership? Even if the firm has identified your department for growth, is this going to happen organically, or through lateral hires? You therefore need to be able to have frank discussions with your partners to find out where you stand and what you need to do to give yourself the best chance of securing the position. It follows that you need to have a strong enough relationship with those partners to have those candid conversations in the first place. In short, you need to be confident talking to your partners about your partnership aspirations, even if they are a few years away.

If you can’t see a strategic need and you don’t feel you have the potential to develop your following, then you should consider your external options. It is much easier to move as a senior associate on a two-year track than it is to find immediate partnership where you only have a modest following.

2) How are you perceived in the business? Decisions on promotion are rarely made by just one team. Other heads of department will be involved in the process and you will need to have supporters in other teams. It is therefore important that your team gives you the opportunity to work with other departments, or there is at least some scope to interact with partners in other groups so that you can build your own internal network.

3) What does your external network look like? The size of a potential following is of course vitally important, but for many of our clients this is merely an indication of an ability to build a network and win business. You should therefore spend as much time as possible reviewing, building and communicating with your network. This can be done by client events, blogs, articles, lunches or drinks. Some of these will come more naturally than others but you need to dedicate time and effort to this. If your firm does not support this, you have to ask whether they are serious about promoting you.

4) Training and personal development. After years of focusing on developing technical skills, it can come as a surprise for some senior associates that they need to develop their soft skills and learn how to build and nurture client relationships. Many firms recognise that this does not come naturally to everyone and will offer training and personal development courses and other support to help technically strong lawyers in developing these skills. If this is an area that you feel you need to improve in and your firm doesn’t offer training, then it might be worth considering your options.

To summarise, the key thing to focus on is communication. It is important that you are talking to your partners to understand the strategy of the department and your role within it. Maintain regular contact with your internal network so that you are visible. Engage in meaningful conversations with your external network, to reassure yourself that you have solid relationships and the ability to win business.

Sometimes it helps to talk to a recruitment consultant who you trust and who can advise you on what the market can offer. This will allow you to make an informed decision about the best possible course of action, be it to move or to stay put, for you to achieve your goal of partnership.

If you would like to discuss any of the above or any other topics in relation to your career, please contact Marc Tobias on 0203 058 1444.