What If You Don't Make Partner

The new partnership classes have been announced. We would like to add our congratulations to those who have been elected to partner in their respective firms. The legal journals, magazines, and newspapers are now full of celebratory articles and good advice concerning how newly-minted partners should approach this new phase in their legal careers.

Not too surprisingly, here at Solutus we also need to be mindful of the concerns of the many high quality associates who did not make partner, or who have been advised that their partnership prospects down the road are less than certain. One of the interesting things to note is that much of the advice now being handed out to the new partnership class (start marketing) is also perfectly applicable to those associates who don't (or won't) make partner. The mid to long term career prospects of newly-minted partners and newly-disappointed associates who seek to remain in private practice is not all that different. Success for both depends on one central fact: the development of a book of business.

Many associates who want to make partner, but don't, channel their disappointment into an immediate search for an in-house counsel position. This is often a good idea, particularly if the associate has had a less than satisfying experience in a law firm and if, in the harsh glare of an honest self-assessment, they conclude that they do not have either the skills or the appetite for business development. But, in many cases, these associates allow their disappointment to drive them to abandon private practice prematurely when, in fact, they have both the skills and the appetite to develop their own business.

Think of it this way: a newly-minted partner and a newly-disappointed associate are usually in exactly the same place when it comes to a book of business-they don't have one. Fast forward a few years and assume that the newly-minted partner has been unsuccessful at developing a book and that the passed-over associate has developed a book. The former is (or soon will be) vulnerable in his/her present firm. The later has either become a partner in another firm or is evaluating competing offers from firms that Solutus has introduced him/her to!

Many passed-over associates are now saying: "ah, but it is a lot harder to develop a book of business if you don't have that partner title." Experience has taught us this is more of an excuse than an explanation. Some potential clients may be less willing to give business to an attorney unless they are a partner in a firm. But, in our many discussions with our corporate clients, we have found that they hardly ever consider the attorney's status within the firm as being important. What they seek is competency, responsiveness, good business judgment, and wisdom. These traits are more associated with seniority than with status in the firm. But, once an attorney has reached a certain seniority level (and the requisite level varies greatly from client to client), if these traits are present, the business will come, whatever your status.

So, our advice to the good lawyers who have been passed over is this: don't leap to an in-house job. Allow the feelings of disappointment and rejection to fade away. Subject yourself to an honest self-assessment as to whether you are cut out for developing business. If the answer is "I am," then go out and try to develop it. It's a long race.

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