How to Become a Partner

An interesting interview with Jon Holland, a partner specialising in banking disputes at Lovells.I reproduce the article from Times Online below:

You have to want it. Which means that you need to enjoy what you’re doing. Specialising in an area that you’re interested in plays a big part. This may sound extraordinary, but I get out of bed each morning and look forward to coming into work. And that’s not because I don’t get on with my wife or I hate my kids.

We work in a service industry. Accept it. My dad worked in a chocolate factory. He’d leave home ten minutes before his shift started and be back ten minutes after it finished. The boundaries as a City lawyer are somewhat less distinct. At Easter, we had a crisis on a job. I was on holiday with my family at the time. I flew back immediately, arriving in the office direct from the airport early in the morning on Good Friday. The next time I went home – other than to grab four hours sleep here and there – was May 1. Of course, it’s not just about working your nuts off every day.

Learn to delegate. Where a lot of lawyers come unstuck is not being able to handle several things at the same time. It’s something that you notice when associates are four to five years qualified and the level of responsibility has been cranked up a notch. Being able to prioritise is obviously useful, but the real trick is to delegate. Secondments – on which junior lawyers typically enjoy added responsibility – are a good opportunity to get some practice at that. After I qualified in 1998, I spent three years in Lovells’ Hong Kong office, where I was supervised with a very light touch. I felt slightly at sea on occasions, but gradually learnt that I could save myself a lot of time by trusting certain tasks to junior colleagues. It’s not easy at first, but letting go of total control over everything is the only way to keep all the plates spinning.

“Hello! You don’t know me, but how about lunch?” Partners have to be self-sustaining. So it’s essential to demonstrate a capacity to bring in work. Still, nobody is expecting associates to cold call the general counsel of a leading corporate. There’s no magic to business development. It’s just about being yourself and gradually building relationships with the people who you get on with. I have strong ties with clients as diverse as Barclays Capital and the Bank of Zambia that date back to my days as a fairly junior associate.

Remember, you’re a lawyer first; businessperson second. As a lawyer, your professional reputation is the most valuable asset that you have. The good associates never assume any facts or legal theories that they’re not absolutely certain about – whatever wider pressures they’re facing.

You’re not going to get partnership just because you’re a really fun person. That doesn’t mean that fitting into the culture of the team isn’t important. Small things count. A few months ago I had several associates over to dinner and they read my kids a bedtime story. Sometimes it’s just sharing a conciliatory glass of wine with colleagues after a terrible day.

Be prepared to move. People can have all the credentials and not make it simply because there is a dip in the practice area, or sometimes just a glut of very good people. In those situations it’s worth considering moving to another firm.

What glass ceiling? Eighty-five per cent of the lawyers on my team are female. The most recently made up partner in the group is a woman. And we’re seeing more and more female partners filtering through the system. In my experience, women are often better at the interpersonal skills that are becoming increasingly important to law firms. My wife is certainly less shy than me at parties.

Keep going! When I was first put forward for partnership back in 1996, I didn’t get it. I was rather disappointed to put it mildly. There may even have been a few bins kicked. But I persevered and the next year I was successful.

Let me just add some of my observations on some of the issues raised. I would think that the advice provided by Holland would equally hold true in law firms everywhere.

I think for anyone to stay in the legal profession in the long-haul, to aim for partnership, you really need to enjoy what you are doing. Not just the general practice of law, but also the field of specialisation you are in.

Holland did touch on the issue of the ability to bring in work. My impression is that this could be one of the major prerequisites in making the jump to partnership (equity partnership that is). If you have already become a senior associate or a salaried partner, I think it can be assumed that you are a good lawyer and hard worker. But you will still have to be able to bring business to the firm, so relationships all start while at the associate level. Your university friends, other associates at the same junior level as you in banks, accounting firms, public listed companies. All of them will grow up with you, and rise in rank with you, in the years ahead.

It was also pertinent to raise the issue of the glass ceiling. Look at the present demographics for law students and young lawyers entering the profession. The percentage has now tilted to more than 60% of females entering the profession. It is fantastic that more and more females will enter, stay on in the profession, and become partners.


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