How to become equity partner in a private practice law firm

Becoming an equity partner of a private law firm is as difficult as it's been for a generation. The legal sector in Scotland has been under strain ever since the financial crisis of 2008. Partners are reluctant to admit all but the very best into their circle so as not to dilute their earnings.

Given this backdrop, how do you achieve partnership status? Here are six staging posts to help realise your career ambitions.

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1. Decide if being a legal partner is for you

This may seem a glib point. But to be successful it's crucial you are committed to the notion of becoming a partner. The rest of this article should leave you in no doubt it’s not the type of role that lands unexpectedly on your lap.

So find out exactly what being a partner involves:

  • What expectations will be placed on you?
  • Are you up to the responsibility of generating enough business to support a team?
  • Are you prepared for the financial risks as well as the financial rewards that come with being a self-employed partner?

Be careful what you wish for. If your heart isn't in it, it's unlikely you will have the necessary drive to succeed.

2. Devise a plan

This is particularly important if you are at the start of your law career. Break each stage- trainee solicitor > assistant solicitor/solicitor > senior solicitor > associate > senior associate/legal director > partner - into separate, manageable parts and identify the main actions in getting from one stage to another.

This will make the overall goal - to become a partner - seem much less daunting. Done properly it will give you a clear structure and pathway to achieving your goals. Make each action SMART – Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-related.

3. Build your profile

It's very difficult to become a partner - particularly through the route of a lateral hire - if you don't have a strong network of contacts and a growing book of business. In these straitened times, you will have to demonstrate you can add to the bottom line. Potential is not enough.

Work hard to raise your profile. Get involved with trade associations and relevant professional bodies. Seek to get quoted in the press and relevant social media channels. Speak at events. Establish yourself as an expert in your subject area.

4. Get a legal mentor

Approach a partner in your practice whom you admire. Ask them if they would agree to be your mentor. Don't be woolly about what you are looking for. Drive the agenda. Outline exactly what you'd be looking for from them and any time commitment involved.

It should be a relatively informal arrangement - e.g. quarterly lunches - to make it appealing to your potential mentor but you should use the time you have to extract the most value from them.

Some firms will identify talent proactively. Others will expect the cream to rise to the top of its own accord. Seine the initiative and be proactive.

With your mentor on board, strive to better understand how your firm and your industry operates. Are there any office politics you need to navigate? Identify the main commercial elements. Get a clearer picture of what your firm - or indeed competitors - look for in a partner. Build this into your plan.

5. Act like a legal partner

If it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it probably is a duck.

Adopt the behaviour, confidence and commitment of a partner, even if it feels like a stretch. Don't wait to become a partner to start acting like one. Act now and become.

6. Work hard, really hard

Perhaps as trite-sounding as the first point, but equally as important. Law is still seen as an incredibly hard-working environment.You have to put in the hours and you have to be seen to be putting in the hours.

Late nights, all-nighters, weekends. Invariably you will have to do what is required to get projects over the line. Aside from everything else that is involved in a high-powered legal career, you will have to be retaining 7.5 billable hours a day.

If your circumstances don't allow for 60, 70 or 80-hour weeks, forget about becoming a partner.

Time to get started

Achieving partner status in a legal practice is the dream of many lawyers. The opportunity to shape your future and that of your firm is an exciting one, but with it comes an incredible amount of hard work and no little sacrifice.

If it remains your ambition, don't just dream about it. Set out on paper how you are going to achieve it. Then the work will really begin.

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