Whether a lawyer has two partners or two hundred, the ability to keep a firm’s best interests in mind and think beyond the individual benefit is crucial to its success.
By Marian Lee, Attorney and Professional Development Director
If you decide you want to go the partner route, you should understand that practicing in a firm means more than sharing administrative resources and splitting profits. Given the degree of autonomy and independence that lawyers cherish and the focus on the practice of law as a business rather than a profession, partners often forget that they must stick together to sustain a successful firm. As an associate, it’s important to prepare yourself for this role and recognize the responsibilities that go with it.
Bring in Business
Perhaps the most obvious contribution that a partner is expected to make is to bring in business. A partner is expected to bring in business that will not only keep the partner busy but will keep associates and potentially paralegals busy as well. As a rule of thumb, many firms expect a partner to bring in enough business to generate revenues equivalent to three times the partner’s salary each year.
In firms that have lawyers in a variety of practice areas, partners are typically expected to recommend their partners to their own clients when clients have needs in areas of specialty. Some partners are reluctant to do this, either because they made such a referral in the past and it went badly or because they are possessive of their clients This is bad for a firm and breeds an “eat what you kill” mentality.
If you try to serve a client in a practice area outside of your expertise, you may make costly mistakes or run into malpractice issues. Refusing to allow other partners to have contact with your clients will limit the amount of business you can generate to the amount you can directly supervise. You miss out on the opportunity to create a reciprocal relationship that may lead to business for you someday.
Protect the Firm’s Assets
Although not often discussed, partners owe fiduciary duties to each other. These include duties of good faith, care, and loyalty to the firm and fellow partners. One aspect of fiduciary duty is to be conscious when you are using firm assets, and to not waste or squander them. Hundreds of small decisions must be made over the course of the year, and you’ll need to make these in a way that respects the co-ownership rights of your partners.
One asset that partners are sometimes careless about is their billable time. It will be your duty as a partner to record all of the time you spend working on matters for the firm’s clients, to capture it effectively, and to submit it—whether directly into a billing system or to an administrative assistant who will enter it—promptly.
Along the same lines, get the firm’s permission before providing legal services to a nonfirm client. Doing work for nonpaying clients is effectively giving away some of the firm’s inventory of billable time. Although it’s a generally accepted practice in most firms, it should always be done with full disclosure and after a conflicts check.
Promote Compliance with the Model Rules of Professional Conduct
Particularly as firms grow larger and partners divide into specializations, many forget that they are responsible for ensuring ethical conduct throughout the firm. Under Model Rule 5.1(a) of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, a partner in a law firm “shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that all lawyers in the firm conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct.” Your firm may have an ethics committee that administers rules and policies for complying with this obligation. Even so, you are not absolved of personal responsibility for ensuring ethical conduct. Provide input to your ethics committee as you see potential problems, be mindful of the way you run your own practice, and teach the lawyers who work for you to practice ethically.
Enhance the Firm’s Reputation
When you interact with other counsel, courts, the media, or any businessperson outside of your firm, remember that your actions speak not only for yourself but also for your firm.
Support Important Initiatives and Decisions
As a co-owner of the firm, you are expected to support the decisions of the firm’s management. You may not agree with all of them, but it’s important that you present a unified front to the staff and associates when the firm makes a decision. Once the decision is made, everyone needs to stand behind it because disagreement undermines the credibility of the decision and fosters division among the ranks.
Participate in Management
Partners also have a duty to participate in the management of the firm. This can be accomplished through various means and may include everything from following administrative guidelines for submitting expenses, to serving on firm committees, to chairing a practice group. Even firms with large staffs, however, require attorney participation in management to establish policies, make important decisions, and perpetuate the firm’s culture and values.
Take your turn and serve on your firm’s committees for—or as the partner in charge of—activities such as recruiting, professional development, diversity, and pro bono service. Take your role seriously, particularly if you are the chair of a committee. Your reputation may be affected if you neglect to hold meetings, resolve issues, and make decisions. Although it’s easy for the lawyer in this role to de-prioritize the work required because it’s not for a paying client, the fact is that the way you manage your role affects the way that others (partners, associates, and staff) perceive you.
Rather than viewing a committee position as a burden, think of the opportunities that such a position presents. Committee positions can provide an opportunity to build relationships with key players within your firm, particularly those with whom you don’t typically work in your practice group. They also give you the opportunity to use your skills and abilities in a new way.
This article has been adapted with permission from Building Your Ladder: An Assoicate’s Guide to Success Beyond Partnership © 2013 American Bar Association.
Marian Lee has been immersed in the legal profession for over 26 years, having learned the practice of law, law practice management, and lawyer development from a wide array of vantage points. She is the director of professional development and risk management at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, in Denver, Colorado. www.bhfs.com