Platform for partnership

5 key requirements for partnership

Tips for building your case for progression

By: Mike Watson | November 2014


A common question asked by ambitious lawyers; “What do I have to do to be a partner in this firm?”

The answer is not always an easy, but in general, you need to have a solid commercial platform to build your case for progression. It is important to know the elements of this platform and be able to demonstrate that you have them.

Here are my five essential elements for progression to partnership and your means of measuring achievement.

1. Have expertise and be distinctive

While being a great technical lawyer is an important element, it isn’t the whole solution to progression to partner. Clients are also looking for you to have an edge, a different approach and uniqueness that set you apart from others in your firm and in the market. It is also important to develop a strong personal profile and a track record of achievement. You will know you are achieving this element when you are seen by your peers as an outstanding practitioner and when you are recognised within the profession and the market as a leading practitioner in your field.

Partnerships look to their rising stars to demonstrate commitment to their Practice Area by building expertise and deploying it within the team, including mentoring staff and providing thought-leadership for the practice.

2. Endorsement by the partners 

Successful partnerships have a cultural ‘fit’. This doesn’t mean you all need to be the same, but that there is an underlying fit of values and aspiration. In building your platform, it will be important to recognise how you fit with the culture of the firm and to gain an understanding of the partnership’s strategic vision.

You should identify partners with whom it will be important to develop solid working relationships. You should also seek mentorship from a partner whose experience and influence you value and gain clarity from them on how they might support you in your progression. The partners will be looking for your commitment to the firm and to your broad participation in activities that build and strengthen the culture of the firm.

You will know that this element is being achieved when you have a strong network of relationships up and down the firm organisation structure; you have a solid mentoring relationship where conversations are had about your progression within the firm; you are recognised within the firm and in the market as a role model for the firm and its values; and you are sought out for your views on various important issues when they arise within the firm.

3. Carve out an area to lead 

Partnerships gain strength from continued renewal, growth and diversity. To be a contender, it is important that you find your own "territory" to establish your presence and influence, and to build the business of the firm. This territory may emerge as a particular client, industry or geographical opportunity. It must have sufficient scale and potential to support your progression and to be sustainable over time.

Success is likely to occur as you develop a client following generating controlled fees at the level required by the partnership to support your progression. You will also be a person of influence in the established client, industry or geographic area, with a network that supports you and will provide opportunity for the sustainable growth of the practice.

4. Demonstrate business acumen

In building your commercial platform it is important to recognise that, in addition to providing great legal services to clients, the partnership is a business. You must be able to demonstrate your credentials for business insight and judgement. While not necessarily becoming an expert, you ought to be able to understand the drivers of value for the practice area you are in and for the firm in general. You should contribute to strategic discussion and have business views and capabilities which are respected by the partner group.

Indicators of success in this area are that you have sound financial hygiene associated with your practice, that you are achieving benchmark levels of staff leverage and that your pricing structures are innovative and client sensitive. You will also be recognised by your peers and the partnership as contributing to the strategic plan for your practice and the firm more generally.

5. Align with the values and brand of the firm

The final element is one which underpins each of the other elements of your platform. To thrive in the firm’s environment, you must make judgements about how comfortably your personal values and beliefs sit with those you experience at the firm. Also, how the personal brand that you are developing fits within the umbrella brand of the firm.

This is the area which generates most dissatisfaction amongst partnerships and is the source of most partner and practice movement between firms. There is no secret to understanding whether you fit or don’t fit. However, an heightened level of self-awareness and your conscious reading of others’ behaviours, rather than merely listening to their words, will provide you with a good sense of fit.

It is important to ask yourself – “Is the partnership setting me up to succeed?” An answer other than “Yes” may give you reason to question if it is the right firm for you for the longer term.

About the author

Mike Watson is the founder of Flexion Consulting and specialises in advising boards and business leaders on achieving strategic and cultural alignment to create competitive advantage.