Your legal career - trainee to equity partnership

Written by: Cogence Search
Published on: 4 Sep 2015

Plotting a course for a career in the law has never been more challenging. For the vast majority of solicitors their career development will involve several moves from one firm to another. Some moves will be planned as part of the evolution of an individual's career and others will be driven by changes within their present firm or the arrival a particularly strong, albeit unexpected, opportunity.

This article seeks to help solicitors at all levels of experience to understand their present position and the questions they may need to address when seeking or considering advancement.

Trainee to NQ

Once you have gained a position on qualification you will have reached the end of the first stage of your career. You have been paid to learn, protected from employment laws and from commercial reality; all of this is about to change.

Junior Associate or Assistant Solicitor

As soon as you are entered on the roll you are expected to prove your worth. You will have billing targets set by your partners, who have in turn been given revenue targets by the management based on the amount of revenue they need in order to generate the profits they want. You will be expected to get to grips with the harsh realities of private practice: make money, keep clients happy and for goodness' sake don't get sued.

Being technically capable and willing to work long hours is not going to be enough to justify your existence. To keep your seat and to advance your career you need to be able to help your firm win client instructions. Business development requires networking, relationship building and brand promotion. It's not just you the client wants; it's you, your reputation, your team's reputation, your managing partner's reputation and your firm's reputation. Business development is a team sport but to stand out you must ensure your contribution is both substantial and recognised by your firm.

At the same time there will be increasing pressure for you to be 'commercial'. This doesn't mean mentioning your firm's name at every opportunity, but ensuring that your client is paying you for a positive outcome. In essence, that client has to want to come back and it's up to you to make sure they do. Understanding your client's needs, empathizing and providing an efficient and cost effective solution benefits you, your clients and your firm. Clients stick with lawyers who understand them; if you are fortunate you may have clients who stay with you throughout your career. Being "commercial" also means ensuring that your firm is being paid appropriately (profitably) for the work you are doing.

Senior Associate

As a senior associate you are working flat out for your clients and putting your free time at the disposal of institutional bodies, industry associations, business forums and other entities to drum up trade and raise your profile all while keeping well ahead of your billing target. Do this well, without complaint, and you will be seen as useful. Succeed in winning business for your partners and you will be an asset to your firm. Keep this up for a few years, train a few trainees and lead a few teams and you may just get made up.

Entering Partnership

To join the partnership your department head and managing partner will want to see that you have demonstrated a sustained, substantial contribution to the firm's profitability and will continue to do so. There may also need to be a strategic business need for an additional partner in the department- absent such a need there may be no room for you to advance no matter how good you are.

Be very aware that a spanner in the works can arise at any time. All of the factors endogenous to us as humans; health, motivation, family, etc. need to be taken into account in the context of external influences which can impact on your career. A change of practice focus, change in management or another financial crisis can alter the most secure of career paths: hope for the best but plan for the worst. Knowing your options and in particular keeping in touch with a well-informed head-hunter can help mitigate career risks as well as keeping you informed of opportunities to advance.

You realise that if you don't make Junior Partner in the next two or three years, it's not going to happen. If you aren't feeling the love by now, you need to have a serious rethink about your own relationship with the firm and start looking around to see who would be more appreciative of your skills and talent.

Entering partnership is not the beginning of the end – just the end of the beginning. You need to decide if you want partnership enough to gird your loins for even higher billing requirements, days spent managing the expectations of junior associates, evenings spent catching up on billable work and nights spent entertaining potential clients.

Joining the Equity

Entering equity is usually a harder step than becoming a salaried partner. While your years of dedicated service to the firm, industry profile and business development skills are all factors that will be taken into account, entry into the full equity of a firm is more often than not decided on the basis of whether it will be more expensive to lose you than to allow you a share of the profits.

Understanding your internal business case, your potential lateral business case and your true value to the firm is now vital. Having a mentor or trusted legal head-hunter on hand who can assist you with an objective and critical assessment of your position will help you understand your prospects internally as well as quantify the value of your services on the open market.

Once you are an equity partner, you will almost always be wanted – by your firm or a competing firm. The decision to remain in your present firm and grow with it or move to another firm which can better meet your needs and/or those of your clients should no longer driven by the race for  advancement but your personal strategy and market opportunity: your head-hunter should by now fully understand the former and advise you of the latter.

The consultants at Cogence Search have decades of experience of supporting solicitors and clients with all levels of lateral hires. You don't need to be contemplating a move to get in touch – we are here to help and will always be happy to answer any questions you may have about your career development.