Been there, done that: Prize or booby prize?

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law

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 corporate cultures.

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 ([email protected]) 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.



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