Transitioning from Associate to Partner: What Now?
As seen in Law Practice Today.
By: Amy Drushal
The Best of Law Practice Today. This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of LPT (The New Partner Issue). With the significant expansion of our subscriber audience since July 2014, we thought our new readers would enjoy reading an earlier feature that you may have missed.
The change in title happens instantly. One day you are an associate, the next day you are a partner. Instantly, your title carries more respect, value, and trust than it did the day before. In truth, that respect and trust built up over the years that led to the election to partnership. You made partner because you demonstrated to your firm that you have the legal ability and the commitment to be a member of the firm. But what does that mean? How do you ensure that the reality of your practice matches the new title?
On a day-to-day basis, you may not initially notice any big differences in what you do. You are still a lawyer and the same lawyer you were. Do not change that. You are a lawyer first. Being a partner is mainly a change in title—it does not change your job. It does, however, carry with it more responsibilities. You are now an owner of the firm. Own that role. Be a team member—a true partner—for the benefit of more than just yourself.
That starts with continuing to excel in your legal practice. Now more than ever, you must be the best attorney you can possibly be. You must continue to prove yourself, your legal ability, and your commitment to the firm. Do not take your foot off the gas pedal just yet.
What Do You Need to Know?
Becoming a partner also means assuming responsibility for how the firm is managed. Firm structures differ, and the duties and obligations of partners vary from firm to firm. Learn how your firm is organized and operated. Ask how management decisions are made and what the expectations are for partners to share in management tasks. Understand the basics of how the business of the firm works. You will have access to more information about the firm’s internal workings including the financials. Review the information and understand it—and if you don’t understand it, ask those who do to explain it. As a partner, depending on your status, you may have the right to vote on firm issues or other obligations. Understand the structure of your firm and what is expected from you. Like all organizations, law firm management involves office politics. Learn the environment of your firm, and think about where you best fit in operations and management. It typically takes some time for new partners to become well-versed in firm politics, but chances are that you already had at least some exposure to this aspect of firm life before you became a partner. Keep learning from those who mentored you to this point in your career. As a partner, it’s important to stay engaged in the firm and its business. You now have an opportunity to express your opinions—and people will listen.
Although being a partner is in part a change of title, some changes affect you personally. Your compensation may initially be less than what it was as an associate. Find out how the firm makes compensation decisions, and what you need to do to get your compensation where it needs to be to meet your personal needs.
Your tax and benefits situation also likely will change. Don’t wait until April 15 to find out about the tax implications of being a partner. As an associate, you were an employee of the firm and paid a salary. Not any longer. You will be responsible for paying your own taxes at the end of the year. Start learning and planning now. Does your firm have offices in multiple states? If so, you may have to pay taxes in those states as well. Insurance and retirement benefits change too. Some firms require additional disability and life insurance, often at your expense. The way you contribute to a 401k or other retirement plan changes too. Find out how being a member of the firm changes your benefits.
Keep in mind that as a partner, you now share responsibility for the financial success and stability of the firm. In most cases, partners are paid last, if at all, during a financial downturn. Remember the possibility of capital calls. Be prepared to deal with these issues.
Most importantly, in addition to continuing to be an outstanding lawyer, as a partner you are expected to generate revenue—meaning you need to add a business developer hat to all your other roles. Your marketing efforts (and your firm’s expectations) should increase when you become a partner, but if you plan appropriately and effectively, most marketing activities become a natural part of your day. Almost any activity you engage in is an opportunity to market yourself, your firm and your network. At many firms, the hourly billable requirement decreases and the hourly nonbillable requirement increases. This is so you can spend more time getting to know clients, meeting people, expanding your network and pursuing new business. Take advantage of all the resources your firm provides to help you with this. If your firm has marketing staff, talk with them about updating your personal and practice group marketing plans (or creating them, if you don’t have them yet). Stay engaged with your partners and help them with their marketing efforts, and call on them to help you.
The Other Stuff
Being a partner does not decrease your work load, nor should it. In addition to your legal matters, you have to make time for the “other stuff”—firm citizenship (participating in recruiting, hiring, and mentoring associates, serving on other firm committees, pro bono activities, etc.), and increasing your involvement in bar associations and/or the community, among other things. It all matters more than ever now that you are a member of the firm.
Get to know your partners (they often are your best sources for new business). At the same time, don’t forget the associates. They will be your partners one day—if you do your job right. Train them. Mentor them. Talk to them.Help shape them into a partner you would want.
If you haven’t started yet, get involved in your local, state or national bar associations. Don’t just join the association or its sections—volunteer to write an article or speak on a panel; join committees and actively participate in them; attend a meeting and grow your network. Do the same in your community. This increases your reputation and expands the presence of your firm.
Making partner is a huge achievement and honor. You can make the transition as smooth and painless as possible with a little thought and planning—and a little more of the hard work that got you into the partner ranks.