If you’re an under 30 associate at a top law firm, you’ve spent the last few years training to be a top notch lawyer.
The average BigLaw associate did well in law school, landed that prestigious summer associate position, turned it into a full time gig, and now is billing thousands of hours a year, working nights and weekends. All in hopes of making partner at a prestigious Am Law 200 firm.
The problem? Making partner is not about being the best lawyer.
Making partner about bringing in business.
Unless you’ve got crazy Fortune 500 family connections, there’s no way for an associate to drum up their own business on just a few years of experience. If you’re a litigator, don’t even mention the fact that litigation is not exactly a daily occurrence for the average person in your network.
When my company, Legalist, launched the legal career podcast, Rainmaker, we asked just one question of our interviewees: how did you make partner?
Here’s what we learned: Although it may look like each partner was naturally born with a hard-hitting trial record and dozens of Fortune 500 clients, every one of them built their book of business painstakingly from exactly where you’re sitting. Here are the top five tips that can help every under 30 law associate get to that coveted partnership title:
Ditch the big-name cases
First and foremost, ditch Apple v. Samsung. As fast as possible. John Pierce, managing partner at Pierce Bainbridge and a former partner at Latham & Watkins and K&L Gates, gave associates this tip at our in-person Rainmaker Academy this spring. Instantly, an associate in the room’s face fell. She had been slaving away on that very case for years.
High profile, protracted litigation cases, while they can seem prestigious, will relegate you to a generic, paper-pushing role for years on end. As James Berger, a partner at King & Spalding, says, “Partners are people who have developed a skillset differentiated from what everyone else can do.”
The faster you can get away from billing thousands of hours on generic briefings, the faster you can develop a niche to grow in. When it comes to hours, it’s just a zero-sum game.
Just pick an industry
When Yi-Chin Ho, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, started out, she decided to become an expert in the legal battles of Chinese after-market automotive manufacturers. As a young female associate, she was immediately told by a senior executive at a publicly traded company, “You don’t know cars. You don’t know how we work. You as a female can never fit into this industry.”
Today, Ho dominates this market due to her specialized industry knowledge. She advises young associates to pick an industry they care about, even if it’s one they are not readily familiar with.
Attend industry events, familiarize yourself on the issues clients face and most importantly, disregard the naysayers. The clients will come.
Find an advocate
As an associate, Timothy Ray, now a partner at Holland & Knight, worked on other people's cases. But a mentor who was a partner at the firm encouraged Ray to develop his relationship with an existing client of theirs over the course of several years. When the client called and asked specifically for Ray’s assistance, that relationship partner viewed it as a victory. Partners can be advocates for their associates both internally at the firm and externally to their clients.
Having the right advocate who will share their client relationships and mentor you as you develop your skill set can be crucial to landing early wins. Everyone came up through the ranks themselves and wants to see you succeed.
But top lawyers are busy. So all you have to do is ask.
Nicholas Kajon, a partner at Stevens & Lee, has a rule. He offers an alternative fee arrangement to every single client that comes through his door. Whether they ask for it or not. “If nothing else, clients like that you’re giving them a choice.”
Sometimes that creative structuring involves a success fee. Sometimes, he offers litigation funding to cover costs. Sometimes, Kajon even suggests a tiered payments for defense work, based on the potential payout averted. His willingness to think creatively on behalf of his clients differentiates his practice.
As an associate, your challenge is to demonstrate your value-add. If three lawyers are competing for a job, and you're the person willing to think outside the box, that leaves an impression.
Relationships, relationships, relationships
When Craig Mayfield, a partner at Bradley Arant, brought in his first case, his role was just local counsel. But through his exposure to the client from that case, he secured actual litigation work for that client's Florida-based litigation. Now, Mayfield manages East Coast litigation for that client across ten different states. Relationship management, he says, is his biggest secret.
Although litigation matters can be incidental, cultivating relationships with industry clients and understanding their legal needs is an ongoing process. Michael Mentel, a partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, encourages associates to put out their own quarterly newsletters to stay in touch with potential clients as litigation needs arise.
The lesson? Just because the case is over doesn't mean your relationships should go on hiatus.