Antonin Besse

What does it take to make partner? What really makes up the selection process iceberg beyond the visible tip of published guidelines, application papers, business cases and interview panels? This article will give you my take on some of the answers by looking at six issues: politics, personality, economics, vision, values and luck.

Firstly, politics. From a partner’s or a practice group’s perspective, the ability to put forward successful partnership candidates is akin to reproductive selection in the Darwinian sense: those who are able to do so ensure their legacy, and in a law firm only those with political power and financial vigour will pass on their genes. Because partnership, and in particular equity, is a limited resource, competition among partners to push their candidates is sometimes fierce. So although most law firms have a partnership selection process which is more or less outwardly transparent, the reality of who gets put forward, chosen for the running and elected is ultimately the result of subjective judgment by “those who count”, in other words partners with political clout and profitable practices.

What does that mean for candidates? They should, above all, cultivate the right sponsors among the partners, people who will act both as champions (partners personally invested in a candidate’s cause and willing to risk political capital in that cause) as well as articulate advocates for their candidacy. This also militates strongly in favour of building a network and being visible across the firm, a process which calls on identical skills to business development and should ideally start early in a lawyer’s career.

Let’s look at personality next. There are so many different types of partners in law firms, some excellent, some deeply flawed, that both optimists and pessimists can rightly point out that anybody can make it. I believe that those who make ideal partnership candidates are above all women and men with strong emotional intelligence: a growth mindset, natural leaders who listen, communicate well and solicit views, arrange regular feedback meetings with their team and stay in regular touch with their clients, talk to and not about their colleagues, are consistently supportive, appear non-judgemental and embrace diversity, and set an example through integrity, high professional and ethical standards.

I would argue that emotional intelligence trumps intellectual ability, expertise and even experience as a predictor of success (although of course those factors all influence and shape emotional intelligence). Even though all aspects of emotional intelligence are essential qualities in a good leader, people who lack them often get promoted for other reasons such as technical expertise or ambition. As equity partnership becomes more competitive in commercial law firms, ambition is certainly an increasingly key ingredient. However, with the unfortunate exception of sociopaths, those promoted without a good dose of emotional intelligence will ultimately fail as both as leaders and as successful partners.

What are the other pointers that help to identify good candidates? People to look out for will invest time in mentoring and training others and have energy and ambition. They will be highly commercial, understand client’s businesses and needs, be a sector expert and recognised as a “go-to” person in their area of expertise, be a solid project manager and good at delegation and getting things done competently. They will also be credible, reliable, build trust quickly and have strong relationships at senior client level. They will have business development skills and a self-sustaining practice. They will understand the firm and their group well, have a good grasp of values and strategy, and be well known and liked within and outside the firm. They will have judgement and intellect (more of the former than the latter), clarity of thought and the ability to break problems down into manageable components and have competent (but not necessarily more than that) legal skills. They will have a feel for what their work-life balance should be, clear personal and professional goals and a vision for where they want to take their practice as a partner.

They will also have curiosity, breadth of interests, and humour: for me, these last attributes are essential.

Economics is the next key issue, and perhaps the most obvious one of the iceberg’s hidden depths. James Carvill, the strategist of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign, coined the phrase: “The economy, stupid.” Applied to partnership candidates, this means three things: that the economy is favourable to their practice area, that the firm is profitable, and that the individual candidate has a self-sustaining practice with a consistent track record of billings, utilisation and profitability consistent with the firm’s financial ambitions. Economics also links back to politics: candidates sponsored by financially successful partners in booming practice areas will have the odds heavily stacked in their favour.

Furthermore, hard work and strong billings won’t cut it on their own: senior associates may see a large part of their practice drying up when they become partners and start competing with those who previously fed them work. In top law firms where profit margins of 50% and more are the norm, partners – including junior partners – will need to bring in at least twice their equity earnings in billings.

Turning now to vision, partnership candidates should demonstrate that they think like partners, and can formulate a coherent vision of the size and shape, profitability and focus of their practice and their team over a short- and medium-term horizon. “I’ll continue doing what I’ve done already and see where it takes me” isn’t enough. Clear goals and ambitions for practice growth should be backed by cogent economic forecasts. Above all, that vision and those forecasts must demonstrate a profitability at least consistent with the firm’s targets.

The firm’s values and strategy, particularly around diversity, and the culture and working environment that it wishes to foster, will also weigh strongly in candidacy decisions. This is not always made clear in the selection process, although every emotionally intelligent and politically savvy candidate should be able to gauge the importance of, and embrace, these issues. Other strategic factors, such as the balance of a firm’s practice and consequently where and how it wishes to allocate its resources, will be relevant to partnership success.

For those reasons candidates should understand, and their candidacies should be closely aligned with, their firm’s values, strategy and culture. Although that may seem obvious, I have not always found this to be the case: lawyers are often fairly practical in their outlook and may not fully appreciate the importance of the less tangible issues influencing their chances of success.

This leaves us with luck. However strong a candidacy may be on paper, it will often founder on the shoals of economic adversity such as a downturn in the candidate’s sector of expertise, a dip in the firm’s fortunes or a recession. I advise associates to plan their careers so that they have a “major”, an area of expertise which is the key part of their practice and in which they have recognition both within the firm and in the market, and a “minor” which will give them more exposure within the firm and enable them to bolster their financial track record if necessary or develop into their major in the case of an economic downturn. For example, a candidate might develop a major in white collar crime, and a minor in general commercial litigation.

Conversely, a candidate who might not be ideal on paper may be lucky enough to have a profitable enough practice, or the necessary expertise at the right place and time to make them an irresistible candidate. In an ideal world, associates should look ahead and seek out areas that will develop into profitable niche practices and orient their careers accordingly. After all, you can make you own luck or, as Louis Pasteur put it more elegantly, luck smiles only on the well-prepared.

There is one crucial final point about self-leadership and motivation. The right questions for a partnership candidate to ask are: “Do I really want to become a partner? What’s driving me? And what will I do to get there?” The wrong question is: “What’s expected of me?” Those who really want partnership will know how to achieve it on their own terms and will be happier partners as a result. Those who don’t, won’t.

Antonin Besse was a magic circle partner for 20 years and is now a leadership coach working with Saïd Business School and several major law firms. This article is adapted from his recent guide ‘The Lawyer as Leader: How to Own your Career and Lead in Law Firms’, published by Globe Law and Business.