(Women) Progressing into Partnership—Road Rules for a New Role

How do you get to partner? What are the criteria? What are the expectations? Can you have it all?

Those were some of the questions answered during a panel presentation at the recent ABA Women Rainmakers Mid-Career Workshop in San Diego, California. The program, entitled “Progressing into Partnership—Road Rules for a New Role,” featured a balanced panel of four attorneys—two men and two women—from various perspectives.

Ali Sylvia serves as the managing partner of Plews Shadley Racher & Braun in Indianapolis, Indiana. The firm consists of 34 lawyers (18 partners), with partnership criteria that goes “across the board.” Sylvia says that the firm looks at prospective partners from all three categories—among finders, minders, and grinders. “You need people with the ability to bill. But you also need the rainmakers,” said Sylvia. The firm does not have non-equity partners. They primarily look at strong billables and/or the ability to contribute to the firm elsewhere for partnership consideration.

Rori Goldman is a director at Hill Fulwider, a 13-attorney firm, also based in Indianapolis. Her firm has no formal written policy for reaching partnership, but says that you are typically looking at a seven to nine-year time frame and ideally will have built a book of business.

Bob Young is the chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He is a partner at English Lucas Priest & Owsley in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He discussed some of the benefits of moving to a non-equity partnership position at his firm from associate as opposed to the typically sought equity role.

I served on the panel, with my contributions based on work with law firms in evaluating business development contributions toward weighing partnership candidates as well as many years of planning and speaker involvement for the annual ABA New Partners Institute, taking place this year on April 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. I noted that it was often critical to pick the right practice group at a law firm (often the highest revenue producers, thus the more powerful players in the room) versus groups seen as more “service” or less profitable. In many cases, there simply is not a “book of business” expectation until after you join the partnership ranks. But there is a difference at many firms between practicing in an area that you enjoy juxtaposed with a practice that has internal political clout.

Moderated by Tom Bolt, chair-elect of the Law Practice Division and managing attorney of BoltNagi PC in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, the interactive discussion was attended by a female audience that ranged in years of practice, firm size, and geography. Bolt and the audience peppered the panel with questions related to making partner, being successful when you get there, and striving for work-life balance.

“We look for younger lawyers to take on leadership responsibilities,” said Young. “I found there is no formal training on ‘how to run a law firm,’ so we look for people to take on leadership roles elsewhere and learn.” He noted that this could include positions in the legal and non-legal communities.

The Role of the Mentor

The panel agreed that the role of the mentor in an associate’s life is an important element of success, for the attorney and the firm. There is no better road map than those that have navigated before you. As I noted in response to an audience question, you know who has and has not made partner at your firm—and why. If you don’t know, you need to figure it out sooner rather than later.

“I am a huge proponent of mentoring,” said Goldman. “I learned that you need to make yourself irreplaceable. Be the attorney that can answer the ‘free’ questions for clients.”


At Sylvia’s firm, the compensation committee looks at who met billable expectations and the 100 or so hours expected toward business development. “We also look at if you are a value-added employee. Do you understand the importance of efficiency? Can you collect on the hours billed?” said Sylvia.

Young echoed the importance at looking beyond just the hours and to write-offs and write-downs, so often overlooked. “Minimum billable hour requirements drive me crazy,” said Young. “Look at the bottom line of what is actually collected.”

The importance of having a “sponsor”—the person going to bat for you when you are not in the room—is critical, according to Goldman. “Finding a sponsor is something that has to develop naturally. You also need to know what happens when you are passed over. What is the firm looking for and are you on the right track?”

Be Careful What You Wish For

“Being a partner means different responsibilities,” said Sylvia. “You are now part of the leadership of the firm. You are an owner and manager of a business. There are administrative roles that deplete your time.” She points to the need to participate on various committees that you may or may not enjoy, including human resources, finance, compensation, facilities, and IT. I’ll add marketing to that list as well.

For Young, how you are taxed was a surprising change. “The biggest shock for me when I went from associate to partner was in taxes,” he said. “You need to plan properly for taxes owed.” Goldman noted that her firm, a PC, still took taxes out. But while ideally (I’d hope) your compensation increases, how that money is distributed, the tax consequences, and the buy-ins are something you need to plan for.

“Our compensation committee makes a recommendation for salary,” said Goldman. “Distribution is based on a host of factors.  Each partner must buy in for shares of the PC. But alternative payment arrangements can be made where needed.”

Young touted the many advantages of being a non-equity partner, where some firms’ compensation structure can allow for greater profit and better control of life and schedule. Taking the managing partner perspective, Sylvia said that a struggle with non-equity partnership at times can be that there is a focus on billing and nothing else—a glorified associate with a big salary.

The issue of different ways that men and women communicate in the workplace was raised. Hot button issues, differing opinions, and having the ability to “listen” were all mentioned. Partners and firm leaders—male and female, from different vantage points—certainly have varying attitudes and opinions when it comes to certain touchy topics. This led to a conversation about maternity leave and family leave policies. It is still enough of a closeted concern for some that one attendee quietly brought the question and subject up to a panelist after the program’s conclusion—despite the all-female audience. Sylvia could speak based on her three maternity leaves. Young has four daughters at home. The panel spoke with expertise and experience on the subject. It is certainly not a non-issue in 2014.

Can You Have it All?

Bolt offered up the $1 million question, with varying but similar responses from what I’d probably call a “family friendly” panel.

“Can you have it all?” repeated Sylvia. “Yes, at different times. You need good support staff and good child care.” She also noted that a good cleaning person helps too.

Young pointed to not being tied to the billable hour as a key element in spending time with his wife and children. I spoke about my own experiences in a “two working parent household,” where we made specific decisions to forgo what I referred to as “maximum revenue” for quality of life and the desire not to have a nanny raise our two children. I coach Little League. I’m at almost every school and extracurricular event for my kids. That comes at a cost. Every family is different at evaluating those components of work/life.

The road to partnership is often filled with detours and speed bumps. The rules vary and shift from firm to firm. But if that is the path you seek, understanding how to get there and succeed should not be a mystery.

About the Author

Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on marketing and business development, and is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He can be reached at micah@htmlawyers.com or by phone at 856-234-4334, and on Twitter at @mbuchdahl.


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