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The path to partnership

Cover Story
|Written By Robert Todd
The path to partnership

For McInnes Cooper’s Heather Black, being welcomed to her firm’s partnership on Jan. 1 this year was far more than a boost to her pocketbook; it was a watershed moment in her legal career. “It sort of signifies the end of your adolescence as a lawyer,” says the Fredericton, N.B., corporate and commercial law practitioner.

She compares the feeling of being named a partner to a “big birthday,” and emphasizes the hard work and sacrifice in the decade following her 2001 call to the bar that paved the way. She admits her willingness to show complete dedication — including time away from her young family — played a big role in her ascension to the partnership ranks.

Law students striving to reach what many consider the pinnacle of legal practice and become partners are surely not surprised to hear they will have to work hard to realize that dream. However, some may have the mistaken view that landing a summer position or articling spot amounts to a golden ticket, as long as they keep their heads down and avoid catastrophic mistakes on the job. To the contrary, legal industry insiders say the path to partnership is a far more nuanced journey than many students believe, and it’s crucial to start off on the right foot.

Develop a rapport

Karen MacKay, president of Toronto consultancy Phoenix Legal Inc., says it’s important for articling students to shed any feelings of entitlement early on and assume they will not receive a hire-back offer. And apart from the obvious need to develop razor-sharp legal skills, she says they should dedicate themselves to cultivating relationships within the firm. “Your first clients are the partners in the firm and the senior associates in the firm,” says MacKay. “So act like a colleague and contribute to the file, and deliver really good client service, and take the time to talk to people. That’s step one.”

Chris Christopher, a partner who leads Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP’s Calgary students committee, agrees that developing rapport with other lawyers is vital. “If you can envision that your clients are the people that you’re directly working with, that’s a good skill-set building tool that you can carry on when you’re dealing with clients,” he says.

Yet some students go too far with their desire to please. Christopher occasionally comes across students who show “destructive competitive” tendencies with their peers in efforts to gain partners’ favour. He suggests some students may be manifesting caricatures of lawyers they’ve seen on television, but whose behaviour runs counter to most firms’ approach to the law. Students working at firms who display poor teamwork may never get a shot at becoming associates, let alone partners. “That is an early indicator that there’s probably something wrong, and they may not fit in, at least [in] our particular model,” he says. “We definitely want people who are team players.”

That is not to suggest a winning personality will offset inferior legal skills. What it does mean is that students must focus on rounding out their legal tool kit with an ability to gain the respect of fellow lawyers and clients alike. “Without relationships, your career is nothing,” says MacKay. “People in the firm, as Warren Buffett says, need to know you, like you, and trust you because that’s who will get the work in the associate pool.”

Dina Raphaël, a partner who runs Lavery de Billy’s students program from her office in Montreal, adds many young lawyers overlook the business development skills required for partnership. Associates hoping to become partners must show an interest in keeping the firm’s current clients and reaching out to bring in new ones. This point touches on an important transition in any legal career. The early years of practice typically centre on “learning and doing,” notes Raphaël. But after a few years of getting a handle on things, associates are expected to go out, make pitches, and build a clientele. She says that was certainly her experience. “I made partner because the firm was of the opinion that I was able to go out and get new clients,” she says. To be blunt, a lawyer with all the legal knowledge in the world isn’t much use as a partner if people don’t want to be around him or her.

Know what you want

Turning back to a point made by Christopher, “fit” is an important consideration for law firms. He was referring to personality conflicts, but this aspect is worth expanding upon. For lawyers to be successful, they must feel comfortable in their surroundings. That’s why it’s worthwhile to spend some time contemplating whether law firm partnership is right for you.

Raphaël says far too many law students are influenced by others’ goals, rather than carving their own path. “They have to really listen to what they want, not whatever their friends are doing or whatever everyone is telling them,” she says. “After you do your articling and do a few years as an associate, I think it becomes clear if this is the right path for you or not. And if it’s not, it’s OK.”

To be sure, partnership is no longer the Holy Grail for many young lawyers. A 2008 Canadian Lawyer survey found a 50-50 split among over 300 respondents asked whether they hoped to become partners. Many law firms are taking note of this shift by offering flexible arrangements, such as non-equity partnership and long-term associate positions.

“Becoming a partner doesn’t make life any easier,” says Jerri Cairns, managing partner of Alberta’s Parlee McLaws LLP, whose firm offers various flexible work options. “There’s lots of rewards to it, but in law now I think partnership is no longer the be-all and end-all for lawyers. There are lots of other paths or courses that people can take and do just fine.”

Parlee McLaws also has a number of counsel positions, held by lawyers who were hired laterally. The firm even has a couple of lawyers working on a part-time basis. The firm does not encourage that arrangement, but it can make sense for both the lawyer and the firm at times, says Cairns.

McInnes Cooper’s Black says her firm has a number of lawyers who have chosen not to get into the partnership track. She says the firm has arrangements with different targets if other commitments or lifestyle considerations prevent a lawyer from pursuing partnership. She challenges the notion that partnership is a black or white proposition. “I think there’s enough flexibility, at least in my firm and in other firms I’ve had experience with either through colleagues or friends, that it’s not a lifelong tattoo that you have to wear; either I want to be a partner or I don’t. Life circumstances change, and I think the practice of law has progressed to the point where we can bend and roll with those circumstances for every lawyer.”

It may also be wise for some lawyers to put a bid for partnership on hold in order to round out their legal skills, says Christopher. Spending a few years as a non-equity partner — typically a lawyer who doesn’t vote or share in the firm’s profits — can help lawyers build up their client lists and gain a few more years of seasoning with the help of a more prominent title.

Take a methodical approach

Raphaël agrees law students need not decide right away whether they want to become partners. It was never her plan to become a partner, and she prefers to see young lawyers taking a more methodical approach. She ended up at Lavery because of her passion for litigation, and it made sense to practise with a big firm and see if she enjoyed it. It was not until years into her career that she decided she wanted to stay for good and take on a bigger role within the firm.

“You develop your business sense and you enjoy helping clients, and you realize you can become an adviser and make a difference for clients,” she says. “That was a turning point for me. I said, ‘You know what, I really enjoy private practice. I enjoy helping the clients, and not just looking at the legal questions but looking at the business questions and the best way to go about a problem.’”

But more than that, Raphaël says she developed a desire to ensure the firm continued to thrive in the years ahead, and wanted to play a more direct role in the decision-making function that would have an impact. “I wanted to bring my ideas to the table” in a way only partners can, she says. But perhaps more importantly, she began to feel that the lawyers at the firm were her family, and wanted to protect their communal identity.

Nevertheless, Raphaël says law students who know partnership will be in their future can get started in that direction by showing enthusiasm as summer students. They can do so by jumping at opportunities to complete tasks for partners, which often open doors to new experiences students wouldn’t otherwise benefit from, such as attending court at a future date with that partner on the same file. “If you seize an opportunity, at the end of the day there’s usually something great, and you learn more,” says Raphaël. “We see fast who wants to learn, who’s craving to learn, who’s open-minded, who wants to do it best to become a good lawyer, and who’s just there for a summer job.”

Putting in that extra effort will hopefully be enough to lead to an articling position. If so, your goal should be to gain real practice experience and learn what it’s like to go to court or carry out a transaction, without the added responsibility of being the main lawyer on the file, says Raphaël. That’s when firms get an even better picture of which law students are highly skilled, hard-working, dedicated, and team players. “We want to be partners with those people,” she says. “You want to have fun working with the people. You want to feel that they’re there when you have an emergency, that they’re there when you go to court and need last-minute research. You want to feel that they’re passionate about their work, basically.”

Know what it takes

Just as firms evaluate their law students, so too should students size up their law firm. MacKay encourages articling students to get a feel for the firm’s culture. It’s also important to consider whether you are getting an opportunity to learn and participate. “Always be assessing your place in the firm,” she says. “Know that there’s a game to be played, and [ask if] you like the game and the players.”

Law students should also be determining whether the firm they are with has strong leadership and a good reputation within the industry, and whether they feel proud to be part of it. After all, partners buy a share in their firm’s brand. It would certainly be unwise to invest years of your time building alliances and goodwill within a firm that you don’t believe in, and don’t really want to be a part of throughout your career.

If the firm you’re with is the right fit and you decide to strive for partnership, it’s time to get familiar with the rules. Each firm has its own criteria for determining whether an associate will be invited to the partnership. For example, Cairns says Parlee McLaws typically begins considering lawyers after seven years of practice. Candidates must submit an application form supported by a summary of their accomplishments. Those are weighed against a series of objective criteria based upon financial performance over a three-year period. The firm’s existing partners will also consider a long list of subjective factors, such as candidates’ general fit with the firm and the type of partners they are likely to become.

Blakes has two to three pages of criteria that weigh into a partnership offer, says Christopher. The factors are generally aimed at determining a lawyer’s ability to “contribute,” he says. That can be demonstrated by everything from the types of clients the lawyer has been retained by, the amount of billable hours he or she has amassed, contributions to individual practice groups, leadership skills, or work on firm administration tasks. “You don’t have to have a stable of clients,” says Christopher. “There are plenty of people who’ve been made general partners who might have a very modest client stable, if any. But they bring other things to the table, and they have the skill set in which to develop that at a later time, and that may be the bigger key; that they are contributors and you can see them being a contributor in different ways over the course of their tenure.”

There is no doubt that it is imperative for young lawyers to read up on the fixed set of criteria that will determine whether they will be invited to the partnership. But it can all get quite overwhelming. That’s why Christopher encourages them to consider a simpler approach. “When I was a student, partnership seemed like this mysterious goal, I didn’t know how to get there or what it was. At the end of the day, when I reflect upon it, when I was coming to work every day I was just being diligent. Common sense every day isn’t the worst thing in the world. It actually works out more often than not.”

Cairns, who has been practising for more than 20 years, agrees that young lawyers should avoid getting too caught up in the race for partnership. “It’s a long road, and it’s very important to have good peer contacts and a good support group, whether they be in the law or from family or friends,” she says. “It’s a very rewarding career, but there are challenges and all of the support and the networking that you have available to you as a student, or as an associate lawyer, is invaluable.”

Those words of advice would certainly seem to resonate with Black. She admits her life has not been altered much by her rise to McInnes Cooper’s partnership ranks. “Surprisingly, there has not been a significant day-to-day change at all,” she says. But it has certainly changed her outlook on practice and perhaps added some depth of meaning to her daily activities. “I just find that you’re more aware of the effects of your actions on the group, and the effects of the group on your practice personally — how everyone works together to a common goal.”

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