by Russell Knight
MOVIN’ ON UP
Transitioning from Associate To Partner
Rudy Baylor, the main character in John Grisham’s The Rain- maker, recalled Professor Smoot’s observation of the tran- sition students make over the course of law school: All students enter law school with a certain amount of idealism and desire to serve the public, but after three years of brutal com- petition we care for nothing but the right job with the right firm
where we can make partner in seven years and earn big bucks.
Twenty years after Professor Smoot imparted these words to his 3L students, while
much of the landscape of modern law firm structure has changed, the aspiration
to “make partner” is just as prevalent for many attorneys entering the profession
today. In much the same way that your transition from law student to attorney required planning, it is important to have an understanding of what the transition
from associate to partner will mean for you.
You’re an Attorney First
In considering what aspects of your job will change, it is perhaps most important to
remember what will remain the same. First and foremost, you’re an attorney. Your
clients expect the same level of dedication you gave them as an associate. Continue
to develop your legal skills in service to your clients.
Dedication to your clients is especially important as a partner because you are
now expected to generate new business. The clients you were able to bring to the
firm as an associate — other young professionals in their own fields — are some of
your best resources for continuing to develop new business. As their businesses
grow, so will the matters they bring to you for legal help. Continue to do good legal
work for your clients and they will continue to refer business to you.
At its core, becoming a partner is a financial change. The nuances of this change
will vary from firm to firm, but there are a number of common elements. First, as
a partner, you will become an owner of the firm, and as a general rule, you have
to pay for that ownership interest through a capital contribution. This is often a
significant expense, so you should begin to plan for it well in advance of joining
your firm as a partner. Your firm wants to make you a partner, so they will generally be willing to work with you on how the capital contribution is made and may
allow you to pay over time.
If you leave the firm, you may get some or all of your capital contribution back,
depending on the agreement you have with your partners. This issue, along with
many others, is addressed in your shareholder or partnership agreement. Ask to
review the agreement significantly in advance of making your decision to join the
firm as a partner. This is an important contract that will govern many aspects of
your partnership over your career.