CRITERIA FOR PROGRESSION TO PARTNERSHIP

by Joel A. Rose

Despite a strengthening of the economy, quality performance is no longer the single most important issue in deciding whether to promote associates to partner status.  Economics, available workloads, whether the practice area can support another partner, who else is a candidate for admission to partnership next year and two or more years down the road need to be considered.

The performance expectations of partners in most firms have changed.  No longer can firms afford to have partners who are unable to pay their own way. In fact, many firms expect their partners to work harder and are evaluating their performance accordingly.  More firms are operating in a "lean and mean" mode and are interested in retaining partners and elevating those associates to partner status who are exceptionally bright, possess a high level of legal intelligence and capable of "retooling" quickly to work in diverse practice areas, in teams, or multi-client matters.

The author's management consulting firm has been retained by several mid-size and larger law firms to articulate the criteria to be considered by partners in their deliberations regarding the progression of associates to partner status. The criteria suggested in this article are intended only as a guide to assist law firms in the assessment process and are not intended to be all- inclusive and are subject to periodic review, change and modification as the needs, goals and objectives of the law firm change.

Partners recognize that the value of an associate's services and contribution to the firm cannot be determined with mathematical certainty nor can their overall performance be measured or described in terms of metes and bounds, yards or meters, or any other precise unit of measure more suitable to an artisan's calibre.  Partners also recognizes that rarely will an associate achieve the highest level in each of the established criteria.  The reality is that some associates do certain things better than others, thus, each must be considered as an individual. High marks in every category is not an absolute requirement for promotion to partner status.  Nevertheless, the criteria, when considered as a whole, provides a law firm with a framework of discussion or at least some objective measure of comparison so that some degree of uniformity and fairness can be achieved in the selection process.

The criteria set forth below are not ranked in any order of priority. However, certain of the criteria, carry more weight than others.  This is not to say that the other criteria are less important or given any less weight or consideration in the selection process.

Criteria

  1. Economic Consideration

As a professional business organization, a law firm must be able to justify on an economic as well as professional basis, the progression of associates to partner status.  Factors which must be considered when determining the feasibility of adding another partner include: (a) The present and projected strength of the practice area (or whether the department can sustain another partner?); (b) The individual's historical productivity level (billable hours history); (c) The individual's ability to sustain a high productivity level at a partner's billing rate; and (d) generally, the individual's ability to support himself or herself as a partner.

  1. Non-Billable Hours

Promotion to partner status requires more than simply billing hours during the work week.  Non-billable time is a yardstick by which the firm can measure an associate's level of interest in the success of the law firm.  Non-billable hours would include such endeavors as attending educational seminars and bar association functions, participating in continuing legal education programs, attending work-study groups, performing approved pro bono work, monthly billing activity, marketing and firm promotional work such as writing articles and participating in the firm's newsletter, and the expenditure of other time clearly motivated by a desire to promote the interest, image and success of the law firm.  Excluded from non-billable time are such as monthly attorney lunches, associate meetings and other purely administrative undertakings within the firm.  Taking graduate courses at a local university or law school to further the associate's own education does not count as non-billable time. Participating in the local tennis or health club, while it may end up producing a client or two, does not count as non-billable time.  However, participating in the Chamber of Commerce or other civic organizations is important and could be counted as non-billable time when attendance during the work week is necessary.

  1. Longevity

This is an obvious factor to be considered.  Longevity of about 6.5 to 7.5 years, more or less, may be one appropriate time frame.  One must recognize, however, that achieving the designated period of longevity does not, of itself, assure promotion to partner status.

  1. Client Origination

The ability to develop and originate new clients for the firm is another of the many significant criteria which will be considered.  In this connection, some individuals possess a natural and innate talent for producing new business while others achieve a lesser degree of success.  While this criterion is certainly important, it is not of itself a condition precedent for evaluation to partner status.  It is generally recognized, however, that the ability to originate new business is a much desired attribute.

  1. Collection of Hours Billed

Realization on hours billed is certainly as important as the number of hours billed.  While billing 1750, 1800 or 1850 hours in one year reflects dedication, hard work and devotion to the firm, nevertheless, realization on only 40 percent of the hours billed adversely impacts on the bottom-line productivity of the substantial investment of time made by the billing associate.  For this reason, all attorneys, not just associates, must constantly monitor the quality of hours billed.  High quality hours are generally collected.  Low quality hours are frequently written off.  Thus, while high billable hours will achieve high marks in one category, the high level of success could easily be offset by the quality of hours billed. Associate attorneys are frequently not in a position to control the payment of bills of the work assigned to them and are rarely able to refuse an assignment.  However, some associates are indeed fee-conscious and raise questions about the collectibility of assigned work.  This is desirable and serves to remind that associates have an obligation to monitor the payment record and of each client account assigned to him or her and to check periodically with the assigning partner to determine the status of payment.

  1. Community Involvement

Most firms encourage attorneys to become involved in community and outside activities.  While there is frequently no requirement that an attorney become affiliated with one or more outside activities, firms encourage their attorneys to do so.  Participation in community activities neatly dovetails with marketing and client origination.  Once again, there is no mandatory requirement that affiliation with a civic or charitable organization in the community is a condition precedent to elevation to partner status. Nevertheless, experience teaches that those who become involved in community activities, even on a minimum level, are more likely to succeed in business origination and development, which is an attribute encouraged.

  1. Client Relations

Most firms encourage associates to establish a professional relationship with clients.  Thus, the ability of the associate to relate and interact with a client is an important factor to be considered.

  1. Handle Complex Matters with Minimal Partner Supervision

The demonstrated ability to handle complex matters at the partner level of responsibility and to function effectively without close partner supervision is another key factor.  Associates wishing to be elevated to partner status must demonstrate their ability to relate to, manage and service clients without substantial or significant input from the originating partner.  When this occurs, the associate has succeeded in nurturing and developing the client, who has become comfortable in dealing with the associate, even though the client may have been brought to the firm by the originating partner.  This is a maturing process developed over many years and is an asset.  This attribute creates a high level of self-esteem in the associate and projects the image that the associate acts more like a partner than like an associate among the public, other attorneys and employees at the firm.  Success in this category argues strongly for promotion to partner status.

  1. Professional Skills

Associates on partner track must develop a "professional identity" within and outside of the firm for skill in their specialty area and possess the promise for enhancement of professional identity and possess a breadth of skills or the ability to transcend a narrow specialty, if needed.  Also, candidates must obtain strong marks in legal analysis, writing, oral communications, negotiating ability and the sound exercise of judgement, etc.

  1. Case Management

This criterion ties in with the above criterion labeled Minimal Partner Supervision.  The associate's ability to assume responsibility for and manage cases effectively, and supervise associates and paralegals, is a much encouraged attribute and demonstrates a certain maturity necessary for promotion to partner status.

  1. Cooperative Spirit

Every attorney should be a team player.  Each attorney desiring elevation to partner status must demonstrate a willingness to participate, cooperate and get along well with clients other lawyers and staff in all aspects of the firm.  In today's economic environment, reinforced by downsizing of firms and cross-fertilization of attorneys demonstrated by the overall sharing of workloads, depending upon the individual attorney skills, regardless of who originated the client and the willingness to accept assignments from other attorneys are important considerations.

  1. Personal Presentation

While most firms do not possess any hard and fast dress codes, nevertheless, image is perceived as being important.  Personal presentation projects an image.  Associates must make a favorable impression upon the public, even when "off duty."  One who makes a neat, tidy and clean appearance, enhances the image of himself or herself and of the firm.

Conclusion

The foregoing criteria generally reflect those areas which are considered by firms when selecting associates for promotion to partner.  As a general rule, however, all areas discussed are important and all will be considered by the partners during the selection process.

Prior to assessing the eligible candidate, in fairness to the candidates as well as the firm, lawyer management is obligated to:

  1. Establish realistic policies and admission criteria that can be supported by a large majority of partners;
  2. Review these policies and admission criteria to ensure they remain realistic with the passing of time;
  3. Make certain, especially at partnership consideration time, that partners remain acutely aware of the firm's policies and partnership admission criteria; and
  4. Improve the associate evaluation procedures to minimize the number of instances in which under-qualified candidates receive actual consideration.
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