Partnership: the paths to the top

The route to partnership is increasingly unpredictable, says Hilary Spicer

If you were to question most junior solicitors about their career goals and ambitions, making partner would feature high on their list of priorities. How best to achieve this elusive goal is an increasingly difficult question to answer.

A turbulent economy, together with the year-on-year increase in the number of lawyers qualifying into the profession, means that partnership opportunities are greatly reduced.

It is no longer enough to be technically competent. Assistants must demonstrate team spirit, client-facing skills and the ability to market and promote the firm. In short, they need to become all things to all people.

In the larger City firms, the non-core, support areas can present an easier route to partnership. If you become the firm’s expert in tax, employment, EU/competition and so on – areas that are vital to the smooth running of big transactional matters – you may make yourself an irreplaceable part of the team.

Another possibility is to consider specialising in one of the less popular areas of law. Choosing financial services over entertainment could provide a better route to partnership, particularly if you concentrate on an area that the firm has earmarked for development.

In an international firm, location may be a critical issue. As one of many in the firm’s head office, partnership prospects may not be good. As the only senior associate in a burgeoning overseas office, the route to partnership may be clearer.

If it is in your blood to work only in one of the firm’s core areas, then plan carefully, make sure you are under the noses of senior management, keep a high profile, and remember, you rarely get something for nothing, so be prepared to make sacrifices and do the hours. And you must, if you are not already, become a consummate political animal, knowing what has to be said, and into whose ears, to best promote your cause. It is fatally naive to feel that you can seriously disassociate yourself from ‘politics’.

There is also a relatively new route: US firms. A number of senior associates moving from magic circle to US firms have been given a clearer route to partnership and, in some cases, with immediate promotion. However, as the US firms have become more established in London and as the economy has slowed, the number of lateral hires has peaked. Again, the emphasis has definitely switched to what business you can generate and develop. A good track record and name is no longer enough.

Another possibility within the US firms is to use the ‘of counsel’ position, which gives many of the benefits of partnership, such as greater client exposure and more responsibility for running transactions, which can then be used in securing a partnership elsewhere.

By trading down in terms of the size or reputation of firm, assistants may also significantly improve their prospects. However, increasingly at senior levels, what you can bring to the table in terms of business is becoming a greater driving force in the route to partnership.

The obvious exception to this is where lawyers act for clients that are large corporations or institutions, where the firms they will instruct are limited. All that can be hoped for in these circumstances is to bring additional contacts that will either strengthen an existing client relationship or allow a firm to pitch for inclusion on the panel when it is next reviewed.

Hilary Spicer is a senior consultant in the partners team at Graham Gill