Senior associates: How to start the career-progression conversation

Lawyers are a funny breed. Their day-to-day work involves negotiating in a commercial environment. But, they won't do the same to advance their own careers. They're terrible at protecting their own interests and proactively seeking better outcomes. If you're an intermediate to senior lawyer, you need to start an ongoing dialogue around your progression track. Sure, many of the factors that determine whether you will get to your goal are beyond your control. What isn't beyond your control is understanding how the landscape is shaping up for you.

Talking to your supervising partners on these points can be sensitive. This is especially so when you're dealing with busy people who have high expectations. But, you are within your rights. You'd be silly not to discuss your progression in the firm, as well as the landmarks you need to meet to reach your goal. In the present environment, even talk of a “partnership track” can seem unrealistic. Don't let that hold you back or demotivate you. Your aim should be to get a realistic picture of your prospects. If you can't see that picture emerging in a clear way, then you might well have your answer too. In which case you need to think about whether to stay or leave.

Let's focus on the situation where the opportunity is there for you. You are well positioned and have been patient. Now is the time to have a serious talk about the next 2 to 3 years.

So, what is the best way to start this conversation? How can you put your best foot forward in the case of a performance review? The first step is to summon the courage to approach your partner. Ask them if you could have an hour of their time to sit down and talk about the progression avenues with the firm and the options available to you. Approach this from a place of curiosity and enthusiasm - not making demands from the get go. You might approach things with an email like this:

“Dear [Partner],

I hope you are well.

It has been great working with you and the team these last 18 months and I feel like I've developed across the board. Getting exposure to this type of work and playing a lead role was satisfying, so I want to ensure I keep this upward trend moving. I am conscious of not stagnating and want to ensure I'm making myself available to you in the areas you need me most. But I also want to make sure that I have scope to keep learning new deals and structures.

With that in mind, if we could sit down for an informal chat around how you see me tracking, that would be fantastic. I am also conscious that I need to be aware of how the partnership process operates in more detail and how best to position myself. If you have some time later this week I would really value your input on these points.

Regards, [Senior Associate]”

You should approach this topic with the firm's interests at the forefront, so they know this isn't coming from a place of pure self-advancement. Lawyers can be quite bad at framing their contributions at work. They either talk only in terms of billings or don't attach any value to non-billables. Both approaches are off the mark. Remember you may be a big biller, but you are in this position mostly because of the work that is being fed to you. You want that to continue, but you also want to start establishing your own patch. Something you can build on over time and that you can eventually point to as your own. That's what this conversation is all about in the end.

Before you sit down to talk, you need to figure out how you will advocate your case for all contributions. One of the traps to fall into is to focus too much on the billables. Even if you have shot the lights out, this may not be the best way forward. Why? Well, you need to understand how the partners see these things. From their perspective, the reason one associate has billed 1,800 hours and another 2,500 could be because the latter was given more billable work. Remember, you are often at the mercy of the work you are given. It's not only about the hours you worked. Yes, if you put away 2,500 hours, you made a tonne of money for the firm. Yes, this will be given consideration. But, there will be many others who have done the same. So, how do you separate yourself from the pack? The most effective way is to attach a value proposition to everything you do - including billings.

As a senior associate, you have many other areas you're expected to contribute to, often picking up the slack of over-stretched partners. You're essential in that respect and don't forget that. Approaching things more broadly means you can point to the following areas, which partners often attach a lot of value to:

Client relationships and business development

How well do you do in client-facing situations? What do clients say about your work? Provide examples of when you went above and beyond to secure a new client or maintain an existing one. Some practice areas in big law firms can be very relationship-driven, so where you have good ones you can point to, you should.

Mentoring and training juniors

Often, even the most well-intentioned partners can get so busy that this stuff falls by the wayside. Again, this is an area where senior lawyers often step in to fill a void and many are exceptional at it. Taking the time to give guidance to juniors breeds mutual respect and builds strong relationships. Be advocates for them, not only for yourself, and you will gain the reputation of a wise elder. The decision makers will also respect this.

Developing systems

As a senior lawyer, you will often be at the coal face in running and executing deals. You will be involved in negotiations, as well as drafting and reviewing transactional documents. In short, you are often the key lawyer understanding how all facets fit together and how best to manage things resource-wise. As such, you are well placed to put more effective and efficient systems in place to make things run smoothly. This takes initiative but is valuable.

These are just a few key areas to focus on and flesh out before entering into the conversation. Once you have made your case, you need to throw the ball back into the firm's court to get an idea of how your progression prospects are looking. These decisions are multi-faceted. They take into account the individual practice, revenues and budgets. They factor in other senior contenders, the overriding economic climate and confidence levels. Partners don't like to make guarantees around these things so be prepared for this. But, at the same time, the last thing you will want to do over the coming years is to be strung along. People often get strung along for years, only to find partnership doesn't come to fruition. You need to be forthright in asking for honesty about your prospects, for better or for worse. That's the only way you will get a sense of how things are shaping up for you.

You need to approach the conversation from a realistic standpoint. Explain that you understand there are still many years and obstacles to overcome, but that you are committed long-term. Ask about what specific things you should be doing to keep advancing your career towards partnership. There will always be ups and downs during any business cycle, so it is smart to time your approach well. Ensure utilisation levels are at 100% or above in your group and that the economic sentiment is in a relatively good place. It's tough having this conversation during an economic downturn where commercial considerations take precedent.

Finally, follow up your conversation with an email summarising the main points and seeking some acknowledgement from your supervisor. You will be able to point to this in the future as a set of objectives you were encouraged to pursue to achieve partnership. This is important because partners may be uncertain of things or not have put as much thought into it as you have. This way, you will have something concrete to work towards and which is in sync with what the firm values. More than anything, it demonstrates initiative. It shows the firm that you are committed to them. That you are working towards a common goal and not seeing things purely out of self-interest. That is what real partnerships are about.