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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Candidates must also obtain strong marks in legal analysis, writing, oral communications, negotiating ability and the sound exercise of judgement, and so on.
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.
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.
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:
Prior to assessing the eligible candidate, in fairness to the candidates as well as the firm, firm management is obligated to:
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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