Remember how hard you worked as an undergraduate so you could get into law school? And remember how you slaved away in Law School so that a Big Important Law Firm would give you an articling position?
And remember all those long nights and lost weekends spent at the
Office just to be one of the few students kept on that year? And
remember how hard you worked as a “kept-on” associate, making more
money than you’d ever made in your life but continuing to work
superhuman and, arguably, life-threatening hours?
And then, like Faust, you’re offered the Prize you’ve sought all your working life.
“Congratulations Bucko! We’re invit-ing you into the partnership!”
But is it the Prize you imagined when you started your career? Or is it really the Booby Prize?
You’ve just realized a few things about your firm now that you’ve got
the Royal Nod. You enjoy working with most of your future prospective
partners, but two or three of them have personality disorders bordering
on the certifiable. You enjoy your practice area, but you realize the
clients you’ve been servicing all these years aren’t really yours and
are just as likely to stay with the firm than go with you if you ever
decided to move. As for the cost of the buy-in, the partners want you
to pay $150,000 or more for the right to keep coming into work, yet
you’re only getting to look at the financials now, not three years ago
when you might have considered other options. Adding to your
bewilderment, one of the Senior Guys is a millimetre away from
retirement and planning to buy a condo in Maui. Because he’s starting
to wear aloha shirts around the office, you’re positive that your
$150,000 is funding his deposit!
If you say “yes” to the Prize, you realize you’re likely paying for the
right to keep your job, (not to mention the Hawaiian condo you’ll never
see!). And if you say “no,” it’s an “up or out” firm and you’ll be
asked to pack your bags within the month. For some reason (brought on
by a lack of sleep, or sex, or both), you start reading the Competition
Act instead of The Globe and Mail in the bathroom, and wonder whether
the whole legal business model from Articles to Partnership is just a
recruitment ruse that fits the definition of a Pyramid Scheme.
And oh the stories you’ve heard. Big producers lured away to other
firms, leaving the other partners up the creek. Departing partners
escorted from the building by security guards. Unpaid capital accounts.
Mergers (OK, assimilations) by national firms with Machiavellian
Well, here are some things you might want to think about at the three-
to four-year post-call stage, well before the offer comes:
1. Do I really like these people enough to stay there for the long
term? If not, it’s time to move on. It’s your own fault if you stay too
long at a firm you don’t like. Get a life.
2. Is the partnership well managed and profitable? If so, it may be a
good business decision to say “yes,” but perhaps you’d feel less
trapped if you had some advance sense of the firm’s financial
performance. If you find the partners are living out of the firm’s line
of credit or the biggest revenue sources are the photocopy machines and
printers, you may want to bolt.
3. Perhaps your firm has evolved to a level where they’re happy having
permanent associates as long as certain financial targets are being
met. This is the sign of an enlightened firm.
4. Getting in may be as easy as writing a cheque, but how difficult is
it to get out? Is there a restrictive covenant? What’s the track record
with ex-partners? How fast do they pay their departing partners what’s
owed to them?
5. Most importantly, if you’ve worked exclusively on the firm’s clients
all these years, you may not have developed any of your own. That means
you may not have the luxury of declining the offer if it comes. As
you’re only as valuable as the clients you can leave with, the best
advice I can give you is go out and get some. At the end of the day,
you’re the author of your own lack of options.
Over his career, Vancouver Franchise Lawyer Tony Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org) was an associate at three large firms that subsequently blew to smithereens, some say, due to him. He was also a partner at a boutique technology firm, which is still around. These days, he happily practises law at Boughton in Vancouver as associate counsel.