6 Signs You Won’t Make Partner at Your Law Firm (And What You Can Do Next)
If you’re a young lawyer working at a law firm, you probably envision being named partner someday. But, as you know, the road to partnership can be tough to traverse, even for the most prepared associate—and it’s only gotten more rigorous in recent years. Consider this: The number of equity partners at firms has increased by only 27% over the past 15 years, while the number of all other attorneys has increased by nearly 86%. Additionally, the demand for law firm services has been fairly stagnant for the past eight years, with the exception of a brief rise in 2011, according to the 2016 Report on the State of the Legal Market. The increasing competitiveness among firms has resulted in a thinning of the ranks for equity partners, which means a much longer timeline to being named one, if at all.
While you can’t predict whether you’ll be named partner, you still have significant ability as an associate to steer your career in the right direction. Because it’s now more difficult than ever to make partner, you’ll want to know if you are on the right track, so you can come up with a game plan to reach that goal more quickly—or decide whether you want to pursue other options.
A new year presents a good time to reassess your progress—or lack of it—and your objectives in your career. We spoke to Kelly M. Dermody, Managing Partner of the San Francisco office of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, and past president of the Bar Association of San Francisco, about how to recognize the six big signs that you may not be on track for partnership, and what you can do about it once you see the writing on the wall.
1. You’re not busy. Sure, cases settle, partners go on vacations, and slow days happen. But typically, you should be working your tail off. “If you are doing well as an associate, you will be in high demand,” Dermody says. “But if you’re not busy, don’t wait for issues to be revealed. Ask the partner you work with for feedback, even though the conversation might be a bit uncomfortable. Also, make sure you are actively seeking challenging assignments that will help you grow as an attorney. One of the smartest things that any ambitious associate can do is to get close to a partner who has a ton of business, and then do everything possible to impress him or her and show your loyalty. “
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2. You’re not meeting deadlines. “The biggest challenge for associates is learning how to game plan and communicate about their workload,” says Dermody. “If you’re not meeting internal deadlines, you are going to have very unhappy partners. Associates need to learn to say ‘no’ effectively, so they can continue to do the things they already do great. If you can’t set boundaries to meet deadlines, that’s a red flag.” Ask a mentor for advice on how to determine the best assignments to accept and those to decline, and how to articulate boundaries in respectful ways.
3. There’s no glam in your tasks. Associates are assigned a variety of tasks. Some, such as taking depositions and drafting briefs, require substantial preparation and creativity; others, such as document reviews, require high-level thinking, but don’t provide similar room for original thought. “If an associate isn’t advancing beyond less creative tasks, it’s a sign he or she is not being groomed for the full buffet of legal work,” Dermody says. “If you aren’t getting choice assignments—even when you ask for them—you’ll need to explore why.”
4. You have mentors, but no sponsors. Mentors are people who give you informal counseling, such as how to manage your workload. Sponsors, though, are your chief advocates in a firm. “A sponsor will talk highly of you to other partners and consider you to have real talent—someone who deserves a seat at the table,” Dermody says. “You can have all the mentors in the world, but if you don’t have sponsors, it will be very difficult to make partner.”
Dermody recalls how she participated as second trial chair with another law firm in a seven-week jury trial in her third year at the firm. One firm partner monitored the trial and broadcast her contribution to the others. “It didn’t matter that I wasn’t working on a really high profile case with a lot of firm partners,” she says. “What mattered was that a firm partner who knew about the case took notice and acted as my advocate.”
That support proved invaluable. “By the time I became eligible for partner,” Dermody adds, “I’d been involved in larger cases that required a broad scope of work. The senior partners I’d worked with became my advocates in the partnership discussion.”
5. You don’t think like a partner. Associates who demonstrate an ability to think ahead and act proactively tend to be seen as being on a partner track. “Smart associates think like the partners. They make my life easier as a partner because they understand what is happening in cases and push to move cases along,” Dermody says. “If you sense you’re not on track, ask what you can do to get there. Even if the feedback is not entirely positive, use it to turn things around.”
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Intelligence and drive go a long way in assisting partners efficiently and effectively. “When partners see an associate acting on the feedback and working hard to contribute on a high level, it is impressive,” Dermody adds. “Not that many associates take those steps. If you are a contributing team member, the partner will recognize that and want to work more closely with you. Partners are human—they enjoy seeing associates develop under them.”
6. You are not trusted with clients or important stakeholders. If you’re working on a team, and the partners always assign high-profile meetings to other associates, then you’re probably not viewed as trusted partner material. “Frankly, sometimes a partner doesn’t trust the work of one associate,” Dermody says. “And that can be awful, because once opinions are formed, they are hard to change.” But a partner’s distrust might not be due to a lack of talent or experience.
“Sometimes it’s not about skill sets—it’s about expectations that aren’t aligning,” notes Dermody. ” It could be that a partner is hard at work at 7 a.m., but the associate prefers to work until midnight. If that’s the case, consider looking for a better fit someplace else in the firm.”
But if you strongly sense a partner really doesn’t trust you, it’s important to get to the root of the problem quickly by seeking feedback, and then quickly make changes. “Ask to attend hearings or depositions, and prepare briefs. Tell the partner your personal goals,” advises Dermody. “You’ll soon find out if it’s a trust issue or something else.”
Consider All Your Options
If you feel you’re not on track for partnership, it’s not too late to re-assess your career aspirations. The good news is, as you gain experience, you also become more attractive to the market.” Most associates are pretty marketable by the third or fourth year,” says Dermody. “So, if things aren’t clicking at a firm by then, they might want to look for the door.”
As you plan your next move, remember to think about your brand more broadly, rather than just how you fit into your firm. “Associates who not only understand that they are in the driver’s seat of their careers, but also acknowledge their brand value, benefit when marketing their leadership and networking skills,” says Dermody. “They can strategically build their brand by getting involved in bar associations and young lawyer clubs to meet lawyers in other types of jobs. Unfortunately, law schools are bad about communicating to students about what jobs exist, other than the jobs offered by large firms that recruit on campus. So get out and ask questions!”
There are many rewarding career advancement options for lawyers with firm experience, including joining a different firm, becoming a solo practitioner, or working in-house for a government agency, a nonprofit entity, or a private business. Ultimately, partnership in a law firm isn’t the only way to advance your career—it’s just a fraction of the many legal career opportunities available next.
Talk to a member of SoFi’s Career team to discuss your options and learn more about how you can best accelerate your legal career.