How to avoid being that senior lawyer who will never make partner

We've been working with some of the world's most talented lawyers for the last 13 years now. An upsetting reality for us is that, if someone finds themselves in the wrong place, they will never make partner. This results in many highly capable lawyers being tapped on the shoulder to move on. This is a stressful situation for anyone to be in, let alone the toll that personal disappointment takes. The biggest issue facing many senior lawyers is the relative lack of a clear and transparent progression track. Without open promotion criteria and concrete aims to work towards, it becomes very difficult to manage things. For many lawyers, the message about progression (or lack thereof) can come too late. The more senior you are, the more difficult this situation can be to manage a number of different fronts. The reality is that it's becoming harder to get to partnership - and can anyone expect that to change? This is not us having a crack at law firms; we've helped lots of lawyers who are now successful partners at top firms. But, the reality is that many lawyers invest time and energy in pursuing partnership, only for it to never eventuate. Great firms recognise this and try to make transitions as painless as possible. While firms may provide as much notice and transparency as they can, it's still a very difficult career juncture to manage. Sadly, this usually comes after the proverbial has hit the fan.

It would be better for all concerned if lawyers could be proactive and better position themselves before getting the tap on the shoulder. Being mindful of where your career is going and how to best position yourself is important at all levels. Being proactive and self-aware will be key.

So what are the factors that could jeopardise an otherwise smooth promotion?

Budget and costs

This is a big one. Lawyers can often put this issue down the list of priorities. The typical thinking is that your position is secure because you are a technically proficient lawyer, capable of doing the work and well-entrenched in the practice. But, in the commercial world, it doesn't take much for this dynamic to shift. The traditional progression and remuneration models that firms employ don't help. They are traditionally lock-step and, more often than not, pay increases aren't linked to any objective criteria.

The more senior you get the more expensive you become

If you are in a firm that doesn't facilitate your ability to build, develop and grow a practice - and hence justify your position - it can become hard when cost pressures come to bear. As a senior associate, pay-scales plateau, but firms are also able to bring in associates to do the same work at a lower cost. The longer this continues, the more difficult it can be to sustain your position from the point of view of the bottom line.

Misplaced loyalty

Many lawyers are incredibly hard-working and conscientious but also quite conservative in how they view their careers. This can be to their detriment, as misplaced loyalty won't get you very far. Ultimately, law firms are businesses just like any other and financial considerations will come into play. Being more commercial and aware of your value in the market is key to stay ahead of the curve in this regard.

Opaque progression track

Law firms do an amazing job getting people to buy into the story. Often, progression and promotion conversations are opaque; promises are made but there is no clear path for associates to get from A to B. The lock-step system also disincentivises lawyers and forces them to compete around billings and for the best work on offer. Unless you are bringing in the work, rather than having it allocated to you, it can be very hard to have any control over this. If your firm prevents you from having open and transparent relationships with clients, it can be doubly hard to make any inroads.

What are the signs?

The signs are generally there at least 5 years before people get the tap on the shoulder. Some of the things you can look out for include:

  • The partners in your team don't share work. There are political issues around who deals with clients.

  • They give you the title Special Counsel. It might be controversial, but many firms are simply parking people at Special Counsel to appease them for the short term.

  • It becomes increasingly difficult to justify pay rises as you get more senior, owing to the cost structures involved.

What matters for progression?

  • Your ability to add to the bottom line. This means billings, but also client and business development.

  • The structure of the team. How many senior lawyers are in the group vying for partnership or promotion? And, who is being sponsored or supported by partners towards this goal?

  • Whether there are older partners retiring. If the group has transparent succession plans in place, this may create opportunities when senior partners retire. Increasingly, however, partners are hanging on longer and longer as the market becomes more globalised and fragmented over time.

  • Whether the practice is growing or shrinking. If you have scope to build and develop client relationships, you should do so as soon and as much as possible. This can be hard, but ultimately you need to carve out your own space if possible and become indispensable to the firm. This changes the dynamic. If your departure could hurt the firm financially, you can insure yourself against being pushed out.

  • The market generally. This is beyond anyone's control, but it makes sense to keep your finger on the pulse and know your market inside out. When things are good, things are good. But, if the market takes a turn for the worse, be prepared with plans B and C to cover all eventualities. Timing is also key. You need to know when to roll the dice at review time and doing so in a bad market always has the potential to backfire as firms typically take a short-term view on these things.

  • What is happening in other parts of the network. Increasingly, firms are global networks and have regional focuses at the least. This means, for example, if you are a cross-border deal person, you may not only be competing with colleagues in your local office but throughout the network too.

What can you do about it?

Be vigilant about your career

Firms will happily have you sit there making money for the team until you become too expensive. You really do need to start thinking about the path to partnership, or the path out of the firm, as soon as you can. It's critical that you position yourself in the right place if you want to make partner and there isn't a bad time to start thinking about that. There are many factors at play and you need to be more self-aware around your position and the commercial factors that can make or break your progression.

Seek advice

Come up with a medium-term career plan to give yourself options. It can take years, so take a long term view and don't be in a rush, but also don't just kick the can down the road and pretend it doesn't matter. It's much better to be aware and make plans over time than to be the senior lawyer tapped on the shoulder for being too expensive.

Skill up, network and foster client relationships as much as possible.

Your billings are one thing but your ability to help grow the pie will be what keeps you in the game. Having the self-awareness and assertiveness to have conversations with partners around these things is also key. If they know you are thinking and planning around these issues and being proactive, they will also know you are not taking things for granted and that you are also probably smart enough to jump ship before it's too late.