Criteria for Promoting Associates To Partner Status Has Changed

by Joel A. Rose

Quality performance is no longer the single most important issue in deciding whether to promote associates to partner status. Various factors, including economics, business origination ability and potential, available workloads, whether the practice area can support another partner and who else will be a candidate for admission to partnership in the near future need to be considered.

Firms can no longer 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 performance accordingly.

The criteria suggested in this article are only intended as a guide to assist law firms in the assessment process, 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 caliber.

Partners also recognize 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. Having high marks in every category is not an absolute requirement for promotion to partner status.  Nevertheless, the criteria, when considered as a whole, provide 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.

Client Origination:
The ability to develop and originate new clients for the firm is one of the most significant criteria that 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.

Although this criterion is certainly important, it is not of itself a condition precedent for elevation to partner status. It is generally recognized, however, that the ability to originate new business is a much desired attribute.

Economic Consideration:
As a professional business organization, a law firm must be able to justify the progression of associates to partner status on an economic as well as a professional basis.

Factors that must be considered when determining the feasibility of adding another partner include the present and projected strength of the practice area (or whether the department can sustain another partner); the individual's historical productivity level (billable hours history); the individual's ability to sustain a high productivity level at a partner's billing rate; and the individual's ability to support himself or herself as a partner. 

Collection, Realization of Hours Billed:
This is certainly as important as the number of hours billed. Although billing 1,750, 1,800 or 1,850 hours in one year reflects dedication, hard work and devotion to the firm, 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.

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 whether the firm will be able to collect on assigned work. This is desirable and serves to remind associates to check periodically with the assigning partner to determine the status of payment.

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.

Complex Matters:
The demonstrated ability to handle complex matters 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 manage, service and relate to 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 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 years and is an asset. Success in this category argues strongly for promotion to partner status.

Professional Skills:
Associates on partner track must develop a "professional identity" within and outside of the firm for skill in their specialty areas and possess a breadth of skills or the ability to transcend a narrow specialty, if needed.

Candidates must also obtain strong marks in legal analysis, writing, oral communications, negotiating ability and the sound exercise of judgement, and so on.

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 — the willingness to accept assignments from other attorneys, regardless of who originated the client, is an important consideration.

Community involvement:
Most firms encourage attorneys to become involved in community and outside activities. Participation in community activities neatly dovetails with marketing and client origination.

Affiliation with a civic or charitable organization in the community should not be 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.

Personal Presentation:
Most firms do not possess any hard and fast dress codes. However, image often is perceived as being important. And personal presentation projects an image.  Associates must make a favorable impression on 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.

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 firm.

Non-billable hours 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; monitoring 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 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 a 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.

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

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

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

Changed Expectations:
The performance expectations of partners in most firms have changed. No longer can firms afford to have partners who are unable to generate business for themselves — and others — and 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 elevating those associates to partner status who are exceptionally bright, possess a high level of legal intelligence and are capable of "retooling" quickly to work in diverse practice areas, as well as satisfy the criteria defined above.

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