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A 10-Step Program for Becoming Partner

In today’s increasingly competitive legal world, scores of qualified candidates are pushing up against the doors of partnership. But at most firms, the time it takes to make partner has been stretched from five years, to six to ten years.


In today’s increasingly competitive legal world, scores of qualified candidates are pushing up against the doors of partnership. But at most firms, the time it takes to make partner has been stretched from five years, to six to ten years. Some firms have two levels of partnership – non-equity or income partnership for five- to seven-year associates (“partners-in-training”), followed by equity or full partnership after 10 to 12 years with the firm.

Very few articling students hired on as associates eventually get invited into their firm’s partnership. U.S. studies show that associates who join right out of law school have only a 10 per cent chance of making partner at their firm. While chances may be higher in Canada, larger firms, at least, also report low numbers of students who eventually join the firm’s partnership.

What can you do to improve your prospects of becoming a partner at your firm? Here’s a guide to help you as you climb the ladder from associate to partner.

1. Learn how partnership decisions are made and develop a career plan

What are the partnership criteria?

“The first thing a young associate should do is to learn what the firm expectations are for making partner,” advises Ken Bagshaw, managing partner of Borden Ladner Gervais’ Vancouver office and chairman of the firm’s national professional excellence committee.

The criteria for partnership are often set out in the firm’s partnership agreement and published for associates, perhaps on the firm’s Web site or in performance review sheets. Many larger firms also have an associate evaluation process, which identifies the personal, professional and business qualities, skills and abilities a lawyer is expected to display at various stages in their career, including for admission into the partnership. Typically, you have to demonstrate:

  • professional skill in a specialized practice area
  • a proven record of billing and collecting a sufficient number of hours
  • the ability to attract, retain and service clients
  • willingness to get involved in firm management
  • a pleasant personality that fits with the firm culture
  • the ability to work as a team player
  • honesty and integrity
  • commitment to the firm’s success

But decisions may still be made more subjectively, especially in smaller firms. What’s your perceived value to the firm? How many hours do you bill? How well does the senior partner like you?

Create a career plan

Once you understand the process for making partnership decisions, you should then craft your own personalized professional development plan based on how those decisions are made, says Gerald Riskin, partner and co-founder of Edge International, a leading legal marketing consulting firm. Determine the partners you should work with and get to know: how you’re going to establish a network of client contacts, the legal and practice skills you need to master, the firm activities you want to participate in, and so on. “The onus is on you to develop yourself to become partnership material,” says Riskin.

2. Understand that law is a business

“The sooner you understand that the firm is a business and your number 1 goal is to generate revenue for the shareholders (i.e., the partners), the better,” advises Adam Pekarksy, Calgary-based division director for Robert Half Legal, a North American legal recruiting firm. After articles, you have to do a “fundamental mind shift,” so when the phone rings on Friday afternoon at 5:00 p.m., you switch from thinking, “I hope it’s not a partner calling. There goes my weekend!” to “Great! Another opportunity to increase my billings.” Realize that you must transition from a “feeder” to a revenue-generating member of the firm.

While in theory, the stated partnership criteria may be broad in scope, the reality is that law firms are running a business. The bottom line is ultimately what matters. Among large firms at least, there’s a growing emphasis on your ability to attract, retain and service clients. Business skills, management ability, leadership qualities, and entrepreneurship – these are just as important as your legal abilities (perhaps even more so).

“Also show the firm that you care about the business,” adds Pekarsky. Most law firms distribute a “new business” report to lawyers, showing all the new files opened in the preceding week or month. “If you see the securities partner has opened a new file on a prospectus matter, go and tell her you notice she’s opened this file and you’d love to work on it and gain some experience in that field.”

3. Seek out a mentor

As soon as possible, get a mentor. A mentor is usually a senior partner practicing in the same area, who will bring you along, teach you the tricks of the trade, and speak out for you when it comes time to deciding who to make partner. You need a mentor you can click with, so even if you’re assigned a mentor, you can still choose someone else to mentor you.

Some mentor relationships are already woven into your work relationship. In effect, you’re mentored all the time (i.e., if your mentor is also the partner who supplies you with most of your work). But with other mentor relationships, Bagshaw says you should meet regularly in a structured setting that works for both of you.

Schedule 30 minutes in the morning before work once every two weeks, or meet for lunch every other Thursday, or plan on a regular round of drinks after work. The idea is to talk about the files you have, when the work is due, who you’re getting work from, which partners you’re getting to know, and what firm activities (social and professional) you’re involved in.

Some firms have instituted a process where each associate’s mentor is changed every two or three years, allowing the associate the opportunity to interact on a deeper level with more than one partner. If appropriate, see if your firm is amenable to implementing a similar process.
In a small firm of six or so lawyers, having a formal mentor is less important. But in a large firm, where an executive committee decides on new partners, meeting regularly with a senior partner willing to mentor you is critical.

4. Develop basic legal and practice management skills

With a mentor on side, you can now focus on developing some basic skills. Christian Beaudry, partner in charge of professional development and knowledge management at Ogilvy Renault, says that for the first couple of years, you should concentrate on building up your legal skills, getting internal exposure to different partners, developing a reputation as a reliable lawyer who gets the job done, and learning practice management skills, such as recording and billing time properly and juggling files.

Hone your legal skills

You must gain the trust of the partners in your legal abilities—your capacity to grasp the issues quickly, to develop an argument and to challenge ideas. Partners have their favourite associates when delegating work; you want to be one of them. So pay attention to receiving and following instructions. Ask supplementary questions and listen with a pen. “Taking quality notes when receiving internal instructions is vital to getting the data right,” says Riskin. “It also tells the delegator that you’re indeed concentrating.”

Monitor your workload

Taking on too much work in an attempt to please everyone will backfire. Try to monitor your workload so that everything you do is first-rate. Learn to say “no” if the choice is between saying “no” or not delivering on time or at all. Explain that you have other commitments (give a brief explanation) and offer alternatives (for example, “Can someone else help you?” or “Can I do it on the weekend?”).

Don’t specialize too soon

It’s important to develop a broad set of skills first, so don’t worry about developing an area of expertise too early on in your career. After articles, your first big fork in the road is choosing between being a solicitor or litigator; you don’t need to specialize for two years after that.

5. Learn “Marketing 101”

Treat partners like they’re your clients

As a junior associate, you can’t be expected to have your own clients. But you should be marketing internally to the partners. If you send them a memo, make sure it’s perfect. Invite a senior partner to lunch. If you’ve got a free moment, e-mail six partners telling them that you’ve cleared off your desk of pressing matters and would love to help them with their new labour law or personal injury file. Show them that you’re a go-getter. “If you treat partners as your clients, they’ll introduce you to their clients,” says Pekarsky.

Get involved in firm and bar activities

Offer to take part in pro bono activities, join sections/groups of your local bar association, attend practice group meetings, and volunteer to help organize the firm golf tournament. Start building a network of internal, professional and other contacts.

6. Become an expert

In your third year, it’s time to start establishing yourself in an area of expertise. Creating a name for yourself in a specialized area is one way to become indispensable to the firm. Choose an area of law that you love—chances are you’ll be good at what you find interesting. If there’s no specific area that grabs you, be pragmatic and see where there are vacancies in the firm.

Try not to develop a “silo” practice, where you work individually by yourself in a back office or in a practice that doesn’t cross-sell within the firm, says Bagshaw. Also get exposure to a number of partners. When it comes time to decide on your admission into the partnership, you don’t want partners thinking, “Only Harry knows anything about Joe.” To develop your expertise, take CLE courses on the subject and talk to your mentor about getting the files you need.

You also want others, especially potential clients, to know that you’re becoming an expert. Start writing articles for magazines and other publications on your area of expertise. “You get little bang for your buck writing for legal publications, but lots of impact if you write for industry publications,” says Saxe. Target the trade publications dealing with hospitality, woodworking, business, computers and the like that cover your specialty. Also contribute to client bulletins and newsletters, participate in client seminars, and give speeches at trade shows and conferences too.

7. Build your profile

Building your profile during your third year is also key.

Focus on developing strong client relationships

You want clients to like working with you so much that senior partners are receiving positive feedback about you. And remember, it’s not enough just to do good work for clients, you also need to communicate your efforts to the client. Tell them if you’ve stayed up late at night, reduced your charges or worked on weekends. To appreciate your service, clients need to know what you’re doing to serve them.

To get on side with clients, show them that you’re interested in their business. Learn about the client’s business and demonstrate that you understand the basic trends.

Think of ways to add value to the firm

You don’t want to be seen as merely a “grinder.” If you’ve researched a subject in depth, offer to do a presentation or lunchtime “CLE” for the office, suggests Bagshaw. “This way, you’re giving something back to the firm while also projecting yourself as someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

Build up your soft skills

Are you shy or reticent, but still want to be a litigator? Take an amateur drama course, or join a drama club, suggests Bagshaw. “Acting skills are a valuable tool for litigation lawyers,” says Bagshaw. Acting will help boost confidence and your ability to project. If you’re a solicitor, learn negotiation techniques and “how to run a deal.” Sign up for a CLE on the topic, or organize a firm seminar in the firm and bring in a speaker.

Other useful skills to learn include speaking effectively in front of a group and chairing a meeting.

Be actively involved

As for involvement in firm and bar activities, you should now be participating in firm committees and contributing to marketing activities, and you should be actively involved in bar association and community activities. Becoming a leader in these endeavours will reinforce the image that you are “partnership material.”

8. Navigate the labyrinth of office politics wisely

“Office politics” has a negative connotation, but it’s really just a term to describe human interactions between workers within the office. Still, you have to pay attention to people’s egos, insecurities and the interplay of personalities if you want to succeed.

Be nice. Just because you’re an up-and-coming lawyer, don’t put on airs or talk down to secretaries or assistants. Be respectful of multi-cultural backgrounds, don’t shift blame and tolerate others’ opinions.

Be careful about competitiveness with other associates. Firms prefer team players who are collegial and supportive, says Beaudry. Don’t boast about your contribution when working in a team. When the firm sends a team of lawyers to handle a business deal, partners don’t want one lawyer taking all the credit. At the same time, quietly sell yourself when appropriate. Let others know if you have won a court case, brought in a new file or received a community award. You don’t have to be a braggart – you can accomplish a lot over a cup of coffee with a partner. Of course, be careful if someone senior to you is taking credit for the same project or file—hogging the glory will not be appreciated.

9. Get feedback

As you climb closer up the ladder to partnership, make sure you get feedback on your work and progress. Get it in writing if possible. “Seek feedback on the completion of a project, when it’s timely, rather than waiting for a formal evaluation later,” advises Bagshaw. Find out if you’re on the partnership track.

If you receive negative feedback, take steps to change the situation. Talk with the partner who gave you the negative feedback to find out what you can do better in future. On the next piece of work or your next evaluation, discuss the corrective measures you’ve taken, so these efforts will be recorded in your file as well.

10. Learn to be a rainmaker

By your fifth year, you should be demonstrating some good client attraction. If you’ve developed strong client relationships, they should now be a source of solid business.

You should be heavily involved in marketing now. If you’re still uncomfortable with this, consider getting personal coaching in leadership and business development skills—there are lawyer/counsellors who specialize in providing one-on-one coaching to lawyers.

Become a media darling. Make personal contact with business magazines and local newspaper editors, and let them know they can call upon you for quotes or to flesh out a legal story. Existing clients will be impressed with your expertise and this may help to attract new clients too.

Find ways to help solve your clients’ business as well as legal problems—you should be a trusted advisor now. Know the government regulations and industry trends affecting your client’s business, your client’s sales forecasts and financial statements, the competition, and so on. You want to be in the position where you’re participating in the client’s business planning, including their budget for legal fees.

Be sensitive, however, to the feelings of power partners, who may feel insecure about your rising star. If a partner originally referred the client your way, always ask first if you may visit or call the client, advises Riskin. Be very communicative with the partner about all your dealings with the client.