To Partnership or Not?

As women and as attorneys we are really good at following instructions. We received a guidebook on how to become a successful attorney and we executed all of the steps. The LSAT, law school, the bar exam, the clerkships, the summer associate programs, the first big job. The next ingredient in this perceived recipe for success is a big one: to make partner or not to make partner?

It’s rare that I meet an associate attorney who is not plagued by this question. Once you get to a certain point in your practice, you can’t help but wonder — what’s next? Whether or not to make partner often looms large on the horizon as we struggle with the demands of practicing law.

If we’re not here to make partner then what is this all for? If we make partner what does that even mean?

In order to unravel this quagmire, I recommend examining the following steps. (Yet more instructions because that’s what we’re good at!)

Examine your why.

Why do you want to make partner? Why is it important to you?

There is no wrong or right answer to this question. The only thing that matters is that your reasoning resonates with you. For many of my clients they want to become partner so that they can be an example of what’s possible to all the other women around them and all the young girls who will come after them. For others, it’s simply the culmination of this journey. They want to check it off of their list before moving onto other things. Whatever your reasoning may be, it’s crucial that we keep that front and center to carry us through the inevitable hardships that will come in pursuit of this goal (as with any goal). Knowing our reason for acting will help us do the hard things that may be asked of us on the next leg of the trek.

If you don’t like your reasoning–for instance, if your reasoning is: I want to make partner because I feel like I should, and you realize that doesn’t resonate with you and that won’t be enough to push through the attendant hardships–your next task is to explore whether you want to make a change or whether you simply want to embrace where you are. That realization alone can be jarring and if you want support to figure out what this means for your journey, grab a free consultation and get some clarity.

For those wanting to explore the journey to partnership…

Next we start gathering information and making a plan.

If, assuming that you like your reasoning, you decide that you want to pursue partnership, our next course of action is to develop a plan. We have to get some clarity around this murky process. Every firm has a different approach but what I have found universally to be true is that the requirements for partnership are murky and subjective at best. In order to determine how to unpack this project we have to examine the information that is readily offered to us. This will likely require conversations with the partners that manage our workflow or oversee our practice to get a sense of the general requirements for partnership.

From there, we have to develop a list of action items and information to ferret out.  Are there skills that you believe you need to develop to make partner? Are there skills the firm wants you to develop to make partner? Are there people that you need on your side? Who are the individuals that have input into your qualifications for partnership? What types of partnerships are available and what do those entail? How will your responsibilities change when you make partner? How will partnership impact your compensation and benefits?

Often, our uncertainty (and lack of action) around partnership is because we don’t know the answers to these questions. If we are going to make this happen for us and on our timeline we need to start understanding how some of these questions fit into the broader picture.

The biggest mistake I see attorneys make is that they treat partnership as if it were something 100% outside of their control and they allow the firm and the partners to drive the boat. They wait for the firm to tell them when they are ready to be admitted into this exclusive club and they wait for the firm to provide the answers to some of the critical questions about partnership. This lack of clarity and uncertain timeframes is what causes many of us to bristle and leave before fully exploring this opportunity. We let partnership be an exclusive club and we tire of waiting for the invitation. Instead, I propose that we plant outside right outside the club door and start knocking (loudly).

Rather than waiting for the firm to tell us the process and let us know when they are ready for us, we must instead seek out the information that we want and force those around us to tell us what it will take. With that information in hand, our goal is to develop some form of accountability in the relationship with the firm. We want to know what is expected of you so that we can hold the firm accountable once you have met those qualifications. It’s all about open and transparent communications about the process and the expectations so that there can be no misunderstandings once those requirements are satisfied. We must take ownership of our path and seek out clarity in an overly opaque system. In sum, we must endeavor to make what seems to be a subjective process into an objective one.

Next, we take action.

Once we have some answers to the above questions we can start developing a plan. If there are certain skills and projects that the firm wants you to develop before making partnership it’s time for you to start working with those around you to find opportunities to develop those skills. Additionally, it’s time for you to communicate those needs to those around you, asking how you can make those skills a reality. Letting everyone around you know what your goals are and the skills that you’re wanting to develop will provide an opportunity for everyone around you to support this endeavor (or not). Either way, you will secure essential information for you to have as you determine your future course of action. With this information, we can work with those around us to satisfy these goals, to learn the things that are being asked of us, and to check in periodically on the status of our progress to partnership.

That brings us to our final step:


Once we have a plan and we’ve let everyone around us in on that plan, we must check in and hold those around us accountable for our achievement of those benchmarks. If there is some expectation that you satisfy certain metrics or develop certain skills before the firm will consider you for partnership, it is essential that we have individuals around us who will tell us when those goals have been satisfied. In order to do so, we must continually check in with those individuals to understand our progress on the path. To do otherwise is to give complete control over our progression to everyone else. In this step, we hold the firm accountable for the expectations that they have communicated and we strive to ensure that we are doing everything possible to satisfy those expectations and to gain clarity when we have not met the mark (or when the metrics suddenly change).

These steps are intended to take our power back. To no longer let the firm drive the boat of partnership but rather give us a road map to making it a reality. While you may or may not make partner at the end of all these steps above, what you will know for certain is whether you can trust your firm and whether they are willing to be held accountable for the expectations being communicated to you. That information will not only inform the relationship, it will be invaluable to you in determining where you go from there.

I have helped hundreds of attorneys on their journey and many of my clients have pursued partnership successfully (and often early) using the above steps. If partnership is something you want to pursue, please don’t hesitate to schedule a call with me and let me support you!

Photo by Jo Kassis

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