It used to be so easy – qualify into a good firm, serve your time as an associate and then wait for the invitation to the heady world of Partnership with its associated life of long-lunches and lucrative drawings. Well, no doubt many older lawyers would dispute the accuracy of that assessment but it is fair to say that the goal posts have moved.
In the post-financial crisis legal market, if you want to be a Partner in a law firm you will almost certainly need a client following. Even if you are one of the lucky ones who are promoted internally without the need for your own client base, you would be wise to consider your vulnerability when markets change. A lasting memory of the recession for many in our industry is the flow of ex-City firm Partners who were cut loose because they were no longer financially viable, many of whom were impossible to help as their big salaries and lack of client base made them too risky for even the most star-struck law firm.
Here we address the question of how an Associate can shape their career in order to give themselves the best chance of building a following and securing that elusive Partnership.
1. Start early. Thinking about Partnership when you are still finding your feet as an associate might seem premature but decisions you take now will shape your career and your prospects within it. The firm you join, the team and practice you work in, the deals you work on will all shape your long-term career. If you are five years' qualified and haven't yet given it a second thought, time to do so.
2. Build your internal relationships. Asking to get involved, particularly at an early stage in your career, can set you apart. Marketing and business development teams are often frustrated by the intransigence of lawyers when it comes to practice development, and Partners often feel they have to handle it all themselves. Set yourself apart by demonstrating your eagerness to contribute.
3. Get your name known. Articles, presentations, speaking engagements are all early opportunities to get your name into the market as are involvement in pitches or client events. Secondments are particularly valuable but try to go to the less institutionalised clients if at all possible. Also consider new media - twitter, blogs, linked-in are still in their infancy in the legal world but are increasingly popular ways for lawyers to easily market their specialist expertise.
4. Network. Yes, we know everyone says it, but your network is a valuable asset. When you speak at events make sure you get an attendee list and consider following up afterwards. If you present to a small group of clients, follow up a month or two later to see if your presentation was valuable and find out if they have further questions. And be sure to stay in touch with clients who you have got to know once a secondment is finished or a deal done.
5. Get training. Unless it comes naturally to you, don't be afraid to ask for guidance. If your HR department doesn't offer anything formal, speak to your marketing and business development people, they may have ideas. It is also a good idea to talk to the friendlier Partners who are rainmakers themselves - if nothing else it will highlight your ambition which is in itself no bad thing. If all else fails, look external - there are numerous career development and training experts in the market who can offer first class advice and coaching.
6. Are you in the right place? This is a question well worth asking if you find yourself constantly run off your feet with institutional client work or blocked from client facing matters by Partners who are themselves eagerly trying to build or secure their own client contacts. Among the most frequent complaints from senior associates is the Catch 22 whereby they are obliged to make a financial case for Partnership but are given no opportunity at all to build their practice. If this is you, it may be time to look elsewhere.
7. Target smaller matters. Get as much big deal experience as you can earlier on in your career and then try to steer your practice away from the massive headline making deals or cases. Unless you get very lucky these will involve you being one of a large team advising a client who is unlikely to follow you anywhere. By contrast, advising a smaller client, may be less prestigious but it will put you in the spotlight and give you direct opportunity to build a relationship. Private equity clients are one such example.
8. Become an expert. This is a tricky one. We would advise against becoming too specialist for fear of becoming obsolete (see mortgage backed securities circa 2009) but developing some kind of niche helps to set you apart. Client sector specialism is a good approach as it allows you to market in the same circles and gives in-house counsel the reassurance that you understand the intricacies of their industry.
9. Ask for business. Lawyers are notoriously shy about asking for work but remember your clients are probably in sectors where this is far more commonplace. Financiers, fund managers, corporates, probably didn't get where they are without some degree of controlled aggression in their own business - making it clear that you want to win their trust and their instructions might highlight you as a more commercial lawyer - more like them, perhaps.
10. Deliver. We take for granted that you will deliver on the technical front but think also about the commercial front. Ease of use is a major driver for deciding who to instruct and it's no secret that clients sometimes get baffled by the jargon. Put yourself in their shoes and make sure that you are going the extra mile to give them legal advice that makes sense in their language.
Of course there is no single golden rule. We could very easily add 'be lucky' to the list since so much is dependent on factors outside of anybody's control - after all, the best client contacts in the world are no use if they are not doing any business! But, one thing is certain, if you have a loyal client base you have far more control over your own destiny and in this day and age, well you wouldn't want to be relying on the good nature of your law firm would you?
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article or wish to discuss your own career path and prospects for progression, please contact Jason Horobin at [email protected] . All enquiries are in strict confidence and we are very happy to chat informally whatever stage you are at.