Going solo – the best route to partnership?

Ambitious lawyers want to attain partnership in a firm for a variety of reasons, both personal and financial. But what is the best route to achieving this goal? And what about those with an entrepreneurial spirit? Is the satisfaction greater still in going your own way and starting your own firm from scratch?
This question has come to the fore in recent times as there increasingly appears to be a partnership ‘bottleneck’ in many established firms. Frustrated senior associates may well consider it an attractive proposition for career development to strike out on their own to set up their own boutique firm.

As a founding partner of a specialist firm, who did exactly that almost 10 years ago to the day, I have to say there is no simple answer to this question. Taking the chance to do things your own way, follow your own ideas and interests and exercise your entrepreneurial spirit is very satisfying, and the rewards for success can be substantial.

Equally, however, the risks must be part of the equation. For most it will be a leap into the unknown, to an environment where their managerial and business development skills will be just as important as their legal abilities, and initially at least the support infrastructure will be minimal. For some this will be an inspiration, for others an insurmountable challenge – it all depends on each individual’s ability, commitment and drive to succeed.

So are we likely to see a surge in the number of new boutique firms? I think not, save perhaps for a few. The reasons are threefold.

First, the financial risks are daunting unless you can be confident of a client following from the outset. Second, most associates will be subject to restrictive covenants on acting for clients, which will preclude taking clients with them. And third, many lawyers do not really wish to be owner managers of a business, even if they have the skills to do it.

To stand any realistic chance of success, those thinking of going their own way will probably either have to identify a team (around one or more senior figures with client followings) with whom to establish a new firm or join an existing, smaller, specialist firm that is growing and therefore offers more opportunity. Before progressing either, it is important to consider what is driving the decision to move.

Associates should question why they aspire to partnership and be honest about it.

A key question is: do they wish to build a business as an owner manager and test their business development acumen to the full in doing so? What do they understand that to involve? Without the ambition or understanding, they may be heading down the wrong path, and despite their best endeavours will ultimately be disappointed.

These are not easy questions, and it is important to seek out someone who can act as a sounding board and test the thinking, preferably someone with experience of managing a law firm.

Professional life does not stop on becoming a partner or owner manager – that is, in fact, when it starts for real, in the sense that you become responsible for contributing to the firm’s income and managing the firm’s people and costs. Seeing the big picture is an integral part of the dialogue that should flow from addressing the questions above. If the deep thinking has not been done, this will be a time of uncertainty and worry.

Enthusiasm, conviction and a clear understanding of what you wish to achieve from partnership are vital ingredients if you are to succeed in striking out as part of a small team building a business.

For those with an entrepreneurial spirit, who find the risks and responsibilities of a start-up too daunting, but do not believe that partnership in a large firm will allow them the room to test themselves, a partnership in a small, established firm may be the best option.

Ian Garrard, managing partner, Curtis Davis Garrard