Your Legal Career Ladder: How to Grasp the Partner Rung

If you're an associate just starting out at a law firm or a law school graduate beginning to climb the legal career ladder, reaching the partner level someday may be at the front of your mind, even at this early juncture. And why not? You know making partner is an uphill battle. And not every attorney will make it to the top. Even if you put in long hours and stay for years at the same law firm, you still may not be offered a position.

Are you on track to make partner?

Given these uncertainties and the length of time it will likely take, it may be difficult to pinpoint what you need to do to become a partner or if you're on the right track in your legal career to do so. Here are some tips to help you chart your course:

  1. Track achievements. Keep a running summary of the cases and projects you’re handling and the relevance of your work to the firm’s goals. Your record needn’t be too detailed — what counts is consistently delivering professional results on time and performing activities that save the firm money.
  2. Communicate successes. It’s not enough just to track your achievements; you’ll also need to bring them to the attention of partners — in a tactful and well-timed manner. To make sure your supervising attorney is aware of your most productive efforts, provide him or her with regular updates. But don’t go overboard with the details; instead, give a quick overview of the highlights. For example, perhaps your advice to a client prevented or minimized the effect of a potentially costly lawsuit. Or maybe you came up with a more efficient way for the company to handle workers’ compensation claims.
  3. Develop your business skills: Partners are the face of the firm and directly impact its success. The ability to grow business and improve legal practice management are necessary attributes that partners look for in future partners. As an associate, you need strong client relationships to demonstrate that you can help retain high-profile clients and bring business to the firm in the future.
  4. Build professional relationships. Managing partners notice and value team members who work well with others. Behave in a professional, courteous manner with everyone – from a clerk to the highest-level lawyer, not just immediate co-workers or people you think might be able to help you advance. Get to know a cross-section of people in the organization by asking them about their responsibilities, backgrounds and other topics. This will build rapport and foster cooperation.
  5. And don’t limit your relationship-building efforts to the office. Taking on external leadership roles can increase the visibility of your firm, which can help bring in more business and get you on partners’ radar. Join professional legal groups, meet thought leaders in your field and consider getting involved in a local chapter of the American Bar Association (ABA).
  6. Build your 'soft skills.' Top-notch legal skills are not enough. Strong interpersonal or soft skills are essential if you want to stand out in your firm or legal department. These skills include the ability to convey information clearly, concisely and professionally. Another essential but often overlooked skill is the ability to listen – not only to what people are saying but also the nuances and meanings behind their words. Your communication skills should cross all formats — phone conversations, emails, text messaging, and blogging.
  7. Be aware that the model is evolving. While striving to make partner is an admirable goal, you should also be aware that increased competition has pressured firms to make changes to the traditional partnership model in recent years. According to the ABA, the changes are leading to an unprecedented range of alternatives to traditional partnership.

The ABA also notes that some law firms with traditional partnership tracks are choosing to extend the track to eight, nine, ten, or even eleven years. Because of this, it's even more important to show your firm you're partner-material early on. Develop your business and networking skills from the very beginning and demonstrate your rainmaking abilities. These factors could make all the difference down the line.

Research for legal career planning

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