How (Not) to Make Partner
Every year, a gaggle of young lawyers passes the bar and enters the crucible of the legal profession. They train. They achieve. Some drop out. Time passes quickly—or not. Before long, a somewhat smaller gaggle of not-so-young lawyers goes into the black box where the powers-that-be make partnership decisions. A few of those no-longer-young lawyers emerge as partners. They have achieved the Holy Grail of BigLaw.
How can a lawyer be guaranteed of coming out of that black box a winner? Draw near, Grasshopper. Draw near, and take heed. Listen, learn, and succeed.
1. Showing up = success. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is just showing up. In the quest to become a BigLaw Partner, that number increases to about 90 percent. Look around and see how many law school classmates remain at the firm. Very few, right? But you are special. You lasted this long. Surely, they would not have kept you around if you weren't a really good lawyer, right? You are a good lawyer, and that is enough.
So, approach the partnership decision with a firm sense of entitlement. Be not dismayed in looking at the geezers on the partnership committee who think that they've built the firm into what it is now. It's not as if they are considering carving off a piece of their pie for you. You're there to get your pie. Just go in there and demand that to which you are entitled. Baby-boomers and World War II veterans love the entitlement mentality, especially when displayed by the young.
2. Don't worry about business. Now, about that pie. Don't listen to the people who advise treating law as a business. Law, especially BigLaw, is little concerned with filthy lucre. The law is a noble profession. Indeed, we are only slightly removed from being an eleemosynary concern.
Numbers are so trivial. In a big firm, with all these other lawyers available to bill and collect, don't bother with your mere numbers of hours billed, number of dollars collected, and average collection rate in the four-year look-back window. You are more than just a spreadsheet, especially to the partners from that other office who you've never met.
If you feel you must be a numbers guy, just sprint really hard on meaningless work in that final lap year. Find a couple of large files and then pound the heck out of document review that a paralegal or a new associate could do just as well. No one will notice, and only you will be the wiser.
3. Mindlessly obey. Not only are mere numbers unimportant in making partner, but also there are far better ways to stand out. Slavish obedience and drone-like behavior are among the best. All through your legal career, from summer associate to partner candidate, do what you are told, exactly how you're told and only what you're told. Don't display any initiative, and don't do anything more than you're told. That's the way to be consistent and predictable, like electricity or some other fungible utilitarian product.
Some would insist that mere obedience and cog-like behavior won't cut it. These preachy types argue that, on the contrary, lawyers should try to develop and advance over time beyond the legal automaton stage. These relics contend that a lawyer should use his own talents and creativity rather than just mindlessly following orders. They recommend taking ownership of a client's problems and making tactical or strategic suggestions and choices, rather than just executing others' choices. They pine for an associate who gobbles up increasing amounts of responsibility and makes a supervisor's life that much easier as time goes by.
Some call it "growing up" as a lawyer. But growing up would mean changing, and change is risky. Look, you were the "rookie of the year" when you were hired. Seven years later, shouldn't that be enough? The firm liked you when they hired you at 25. Just be exactly the same person at 32 or 35 or whenever the firm wakes up and decides to give you the recognition you deserve.
4. Go it alone. This brings us back to that pie and how to get a piece. Some will say that it pays to cultivate relationships, in law school and within the firm. Keep in contact. Be a friend. Be selfless. Be genuinely helpful to friends. Look for people who have the business and the skills that you admire, then help them and learn from them.
Organically, over seven or eight years, a lawyer who does this will develop business, skills and circles of influence that the firm can ill afford to do without. She may grow to liked by partners. If other lawyers need and like a partnership candidate, they may give her a share of their firm.
Just kidding—that's all nonsense. You're shooting for partnership in a big law firm. If you wanted to bake your own pie, you would've just hung out a shingle after law school. What was the point of all that focus on grades and law review if not to join an organization where others bring pie out on a platter?
You are the rookie of the year, or you were seven years ago. You have done more hours of meaningless document review than any human being in history. Indeed, you have so little human contact that continuing to call you a human being is a stretch. But now is your time, and it's time for some pie.