What makes for a good associate is not necessarily what makes for a good partner. The two have very different roles in a firm. I have written on this blog before about things you can do to be a better associate. Let me sum it up for you like this: a good associate works diligently, knows the expectations his partners have of him, and fully immerses himself in his practice areas so he can meet his clients needs. But these things alone do not prepare an associate for a partnership, which is presumably where most associates at firms would like to end up.
The trouble is most associates receive very little guidance on what partners are looking for to enable associates not only to receive a partnership offer but also to make a successful transition. To help fill that gap, I interviewed Stacy L. Moon, a shareholder with F&B Law Firm, P.C. in Huntsville, Alabama. Stacy practices in multiple areas of civil defense litigation and is active in DRI, currently serving as the chair of the Law Practice Management Committee.
On the Transition from Associate to Partner
- What characteristics or qualities make for a good associate?
Curiosity – wanting to know why a court made a ruling in a case; wanting to understand how decisions are made or how a case assessment was reached.
Thinking outside the box – when given a form or “go by,” having the courage to make changes to the language because it seems too formalistic and not sufficiently clear; considering ways out of a suit (or additional claims against a party) that might not be included in the “last” pleading.
Understanding that a law school degree does not mean that person automatically knows everything.
- What are you looking for in a business partner?
Because I do not have a business background, I would want someone with a business background or willing to hire someone with a business background to manage financials. I also would want someone who thinks of everyone in the office as a team, rather than people working “for” her. Also, firms should have a balance of “trees” people and “forest” people.
- What helps you identify whether an associate is ready to become a partner?
Frequently, the questions an associate asks is an indicator. Are they more thought process questions or basic? Is the associate taking an interest in developing business, not just practicing law? Is the associate looking for ways to get his or her name out, as well as the firm’s? In crunch times, is the associate ok working extra hours? [In turn, in our office, in slower work periods, we understand taking advantage of those times to take care of other items.]
Is the associate demonstrating that he or she is considering the firm as a whole, not just the “work”? Biggest attitude change between an associate and a partner or shareholder is the reaction to closing the firm for weather. While I always appreciate a snow day (and I love snow), my other thought is almost always how much are we going to lose in billables that day.
- Do you actively set these expectations, or is it more of a passive approach as the associate develops?
We are more passive, although we tend to eat lunch a lot, so we have an opportunity to evaluate.
- Should associates expect to be groomed for the transition?
Yes. In our firm, I was given a one year “heads’ up” that the firm was considering me as shareholder. I began receiving financial reports at that point to help me see the financial aspects of the business.
- What are indicators that an associate isn’t preparing himself for partnership?
I am unusual. I do NOT think working 8-5 means the associate is not preparing himself for partnership, depending on the work done. As mentioned above, the bigger indication is an associate not thinking beyond his or her cases.
- What practical things can an associate do on a daily or weekly basis to prepare himself for partnership?
Read (case developments, business blogs, anything). Write (not just for cases, but articles, memos if you see a developing area of law or change in law that partners need to be aware of). Develop a relationship with co-workers, not just the partners, but include the partners.
While no two firms are the same, Stacy’s responses iterate I’ve long held and even shared on here about characteristics of developing associates. Namely, be mindful not only of your work but also of the firm’s business and developing relationships with professionals in your practice area.
Photo by amazed – l’étonné.