One of your high-performing associates is about to enter her fifth year at the firm. She has asked for a meeting to discuss the firm’s path to partnership. Your partners recently had a meeting about “keeping the keepers” so you want to be ready. Here are five questions you may have to answer.
1. Criteria for Partnership Admission
What are the firm’s written criteria for admission to partnership, and which of them are clearly subjective?
No firm is going to treat partnership as “automatic” upon attaining certain measurable goals. At the same time, candidates for admission know that there are objective and subjective criteria. Concerning subjective criteria, it won’t be sufficient to have a sweeping category such as “must have the right attitude and mentality to be an owner.”
At the very least, the subjective criteria should have specific categories that give an associate guidance on performance. Categories such as management skills, business development performance indicators, legal project management and collaboration can all be evaluated. When it comes to spending firm investment time, the candidate needs more guidance than “must have the right stuff.”
2. “On Track” Communications
When will I get an “on track” message about my prospects?
Larger firms often have a policy on this question. Associates in their fifth or sixth year will get more frequent evaluations and will be told whether they are “on track” in the partnership. This is followed by annual messaging about what must be done to remain on track. This messaging is critical for retaining top associates. The alternative (which we also see) is a message that “every associate has a partnership opportunity – and we’ll tell you around year 9 or 10”. That ambiguity may cause your “keepers” to flee while they can make a good partnership case in another firm. The message is still no guarantee, but it helps the associate use annual evaluations to improve, so that she can remain on track.
3. Chances in My Practice Area
How many new partners (from within or lateral) in my practice area have been admitted in the past five years? What is the projection for the next five years?
This question is important for associates who are practicing in a group that is a niche, or a support practice. (Examples: Environmental Law in a transactional firm; Tax Law, ERISA). It can also be important in a highly leveraged practice, where two or three partners are managing five times as many billing professionals. If the current partners are young or in mid-career, the firm is not going to need another partner in that group unless there is an unexpected departure. You’ll need to be honest about the prospects in these practices.
4. Book of Business
How does the firm assess a senior associate’s confirmed book of business and the prospects of building that book? Are there any minimum expectations before one is put up for partnership?
This criterion has become much more important than in past years. Growing the firm means more than technical and management skills, plus proven production. Business development training is made available much earlier than it used to be. A lateral partner with a proven book may be more attractive than the inside candidate. A candidate will want to know the current expectations and how they have changed over the past few years. She may be facing a higher hurdle in 4-5 years than today’s standard.
5. My Paycheck
If I were a senior associate today and became a partner in the new year, what would be my monthly draw and how much would be deferred (year-end) compensation?
New partners are sometimes shocked to see that their monthly paycheck is lower than their previous monthly net salary as an employee. They may be facing quarterly estimated tax bills as well. In some firms, the leap to partnership is so significant that this is not a material concern. However, for an associate with a young family and high monthly costs for student loans, a mortgage, and child care, there will be financial security anxieties. You can’t project that person’s exact total compensation in advance, but the firm’s financial team can give you historical annual ranges for partners in their early years. You also have a program of monthly draws that can be easily explained and that will not change radically in the years ahead. This is another topic on which you can remove the mystery of the transition to partnership.
These five questions are just some of the concerns on the minds of associates who are planning their career paths. They have access to more information about other firms and other career options than existed 10 years ago – mostly due to legal websites and regular calls from recruiters. Your firm cannot afford to be a “black box” of mystery when you talk with associates about a path to partnership.