Partnership: Unlocking Your Full Potential

Chris Tang, Director Star Anise Legal Recruitment

The demand for partners in international law firms in Asia is reaching its highest levels in recent years, which is a direct benefit of the improved global market sentiment. Whilst the mature international law firms maintain normal partner attrition rates and have a steady demand for new partners, we are starting to see overseas law firms who have returned to Asia as well as local offices of international firms who set up post-2008 gaining more confidence to expand.

But as demand increases, the supply of good quality partners has remained static. Why? Because little has changed in the numbers of lawyers considered as “partnership material” by law firms. Simply put, too few associates are building or generating their own business, which is a key hiring requirement of most firms. Arguably, for this to change, a revolution needs to take place.

For one, whilst there is a “partnership path” that many law firms adopt to place senior associates and consultants, it typically only happens when lawyers reach 8–12 years PQE. This system often deters many junior associates from even thinking about partnership as a genuine career path in the first place.

Why? In general terms, the first 6–8 years of post-qualification is geared towards getting the associate to give support on, then eventually running, their own matters. In other words, the employer looks to develop lawyers as legal practitioners, first and foremost, with little or no emphasis on developing them as business people. From time to time, associates may be brought in to help with a pitch or to attend a client dinner, but more often than not, young associates never have the chance to see a business opportunity develop from beginning to end.

Yet once you have reached the senior associate level you are expected almost seemingly overnight to win new business in order to be considered “partner potential”. But to an associate, it feels like being trained to be a master calligrapher and then being told to fight a lion!

Whilst becoming a senior associate is official recognition from your firm of the strength and depth of your skills in your chosen practice area, it is not necessarily a reflection of your ability to manage or supervise a team, spot and realise revenue opportunities in prospective or existing clients, manage Key Performance Indicators (“KPIs”) or improve your billing recovery or profitability rate.

Whilst technically-skilled lawyers are in abundance, it is all too common for senior lawyers not to have a business-following simply because of the business model in which they operate. With a large law firm whose client base consists mainly of institutional clients, the client relationship is often kept very close to a partner or select group of partners. Unless the team is grooming a lawyer for succession purposes, a talented associate may have to wait much later in their career for the opportunity to gain partnership. This results in many associates simply moving to a firm where partnership prospects are available earlier.

With this in mind, should law firms unlock the potential of junior levels by actively investing in other skill sets?

Long-term investment in pervasive and business skills for associates is something I have actively encouraged amongst my clients – the development of true commercial skills should be invested in from the moment a person signs their training contract, not only when they reach 8 years PQE. More weighting should be given by law firms in the development of lawyers as business people at an early stage in their career so they can develop the skills, the drive and the passion to become brilliant technical lawyers with shrewd business acumen.

Trainees and associates alike must recognise that law firms are some of the most tightly run, highly profitable enterprises in the world. In order to be entrusted to help steer one of these ships in the future, you have to develop skills above and beyond the purely technical skills.

In order to maximise your partnership prospects, here are five pieces of advice to keep in mind:

1. Success is not just about the law – whether you pursue your long-term career in a law firm or in-house, your success will be determined on the strength of your relationships with your colleagues, your clients, your peers and any other stakeholder in your organisation. Starting relationship-building early in your career will help you grow your network and confidence.

2. Develop the art of small talk – networking is a crucial facet of business development. If you are attending a cocktail event you have to be armed with the ability to talk about “nothing” (as the TV comedy show Seinfeld so famously talked about in one episode). Today’s trainee accountant or analyst will be tomorrow’s leading accountancy partner or Managing Director at an investment bank, ie, potentially valuable sources for business referrals. Developing and maintaining that network through the years will pay dividends.

3. Be pro-active – whether it’s volunteering to work on a case or deal, or inviting a client out to coffee or an event, every action, delay and inaction will be mentally noted. Be persistent!

4. Find a mentor or coach – the more senior you become, the lonelier it will become. As a trainee, you have the luxury of being able to share your problems with fellow trainees. At 8 years PQE, your once fellow trainees may be too busy pursuing their own careers, may have moved in-house or may have moved out of the law altogether. Finding a mentor or an executive coach that can offer guidance can help you ensure that you are getting the most out of your career.

5. Win business as early as possible – early wins, no matter how small or seemingly trivial, will give you the confidence to go out for bigger wins. After you get the first win under your belt, you’ll be self-assured that you can achieve more.