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February 7, 2010

Young Lawyers Offer Roadmap to Becoming Partner

New law firm partner Kendyl Hanks recommends that potential partners create a personal business plan to help guide their career choices. Fellow panelists Kevin Shaughnessy and Lynlee Wells Palmer look on.

New law firm partner Kendyl Hanks recommends that potential partners create a personal business plan to help guide their career choices. Fellow panelists Kevin Shaughnessy and Lynlee Wells Palmer look on.

With fewer lawyers making it to the partner ranks, how can a lawyer distinguish herself from her peers seeking the same top spots? That was the primary question explored during “Pointers for the New Partner,” a Friday session of the ABA Midyear Meeting, sponsored by the Young Lawyers Division.

According to panelist Kevin Shaughnessy, a shareholder in the Orlando office of Baker Hostetler, who first became a partner in 1989, the number one thing that firms look for in potential partners is a sense of ownership.  “That means acting like a partner, and not like an employee,” explained fellow panelist Kendyl Hanks, who became a partner just three weeks ago. Take initiative, go above and beyond what is expected, and earn the confidence of others in the firm, they advised.

Another important quality of potential partners: value to the law firm.  Value is not just about how much a lawyer bills. It’s also about whether a lawyer “brings something substantive to the table,” said Shaughnessy, citing bar activities, community service and other leadership activities as ways of developing value.

“When doing these activities, it has to be clear to the firm that it’s not just about you,” added Hanks. “[These activities] should also be good for the firm. You’re there representing your firm, as an extension of your firm and your colleagues. You become an asset to your firm on a much bigger platform.”

Shaughnessy shared an example of a charity golf tournament that he organized. He used the event as a networking opportunity to connect his colleagues to some potential clients, and ended up scoring business for his firm.

Hanks emphasized that ultimately, law firms are profit-making entities, so potential partners should understand their firm’s business plan. “If you aren’t able to articulate for yourself and for the people who are considering you for partner how you are part of the firm’s business plan and why you would add value to it, you won’t make partner.”

Hanks suggested that partner-seeking lawyers create a personal business plan that details their career goals and the steps to reach them. More than a road map to the future, Hanks also includes a review of her past successes, as well as the areas she’d like to improve.

Panelist Lynlee Wells Palmer, a partner for two years with a mid-size firm in Alabama, added that a personal plan should also include leadership activities and other endeavors outside the firm. “The firm wants to see you as a whole person, and not just a billable machine,” she said.

To get guidance on creating a personal plan, Shaughnessy recommended that lawyers consult the senior members of their firm who “have already made it.”  He further suggested that advice-seeking lawyers go outside their practice group for help, making themselves more well-known throughout their firm.

Becoming well-known – and well-liked– was highlighted as an important strategy by Palmer. “Get to know people in the firm, because if they do like you, they’ll have a much harder time telling you, ‘No, you will not become partner.’”

Other qualities of potential partners shared by the panelists include a strong work ethic, professionalism and ethical behavior.

Regarding ethical behavior, Shaughnessy warned: “You can ruin an entire career with just one breach. It’s just one strike – and you’re out.”

“Pointers for the New Partner” was based on a new online resource, 100 Plus Pointers for the New Partner, now available for download.

“Pointers for the New Partner” was sponsored by the Young Lawyers Division. Division Director Jill McCall moderated the session.

Learn More About:  Young Lawyers