Five Ways to Get on the Equity Partner Fast Track
Law360, December 18, 2015

By Sindhu Sundar

LOS ANGELES — The path to equity partnership has kept to the traditional route over decades — one paved with achievements in client development and a track record of generating revenue for the firm.

But aggressive ambition alone will not clinch the position, as an attorney must also be able to work well with colleagues and earn the trust of his or her senior partners and clients.

"A savvy young person coming out of law school often has that zeal and aggression," said Delia Swan of Swan Legal Search. "But the equity partners are also looking for that 'god' or 'goddess' attorney, who checks off everything on their list.

"A lot of attorneys are lacking in their ability to keep interesting conversations," she added, "but the people who are selected for equity partnership have dynamic and charismatic personalities — talented folks that you'd also want to have a beer with."

Here are some ways young attorneys can lay the groundwork to move up the BigLaw ranks:

Build Your Book of Business

This may be a tough one for young attorneys, who are typically introduced to new clients by senior partners taking an interest in their professional development.

But ever since the practice of law tipped from being a profession to more of a business after the 2008 economic crisis, it's increasingly crucial for young attorneys to demonstrate that they can pull in clients or generate more business from existing ones, according to Lyndon Parker of JD Search Advisors LLC.

Young attorneys should be seeking to expand their profile among existing clients and prospective customers by pushing to attend pitch meetings with new clients, networking through social media and pro bono work, Parker said.

"You need to keep in mind that this isn't just you being handed a file, and working 10 to 12 hours a day and billing 2,300 hours a year," he said. "This is about making sure that the clients you meet and are introduced to look at you as the go-to lawyer for their work, so when that they call the firm, they ask for you."

Parker also said young attorneys should look to build strong relationships with their in-house counterparts in large corporate clients, so that as those young professionals ascend the ranks within their companies, they continue to rely on those same attorneys at their outside law firms.

"Make sure you befriend your peer group at the client firm, so that when they rise in power and capability, you should as well," he said.

Know How to Manage Institutional Clients

Learning to maintain the business of large clients is perhaps an even more crucial skill for young attorneys than drawing in new ones. Demonstrating the ability to retain clients is a key indicator of your future ability of an equity partner to maintain the firm's financial health and stability, experts say.

"It's obvious that if you can't keep a client happy, then the firm takes a financial hit," said Ken Young, the co-founder of Young Mayden Legal Search and the former leader of the labor and employment practice group at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP. "It's an art to be able to interact with large corporations, whether you're dealing with general counsel or even high-level executives."

Clients generally want to see that their outside counsel adhere to their policies surrounding billing and staffing on their projects and to be kept abreast of any key changes that affect them, particularly in terms of legal strategy or costs.

New attorneys, who may be more prone to seeing their roles primarily as dispensing professional advice, should also deploy key communication skills to keep customers satisfied, Young said.

"Some of these younger attorneys are good at practicing law, but they weren't necessarily raised in a business environment," he said. "One thing that clients really don't like, for example, is surprises, especially when it comes to the bill. And lawyers who can anticipate changes and keep clients informed, or know how to deliver necessary advice or news that their clients might not like to hear — that's an intangible skill you need to have."

Understand What Being an Equity Partner Involves

One of the first steps toward angling for an equity partner position is to learn what that position actually involves in your particular firm. Newer attorneys should learn, for example, what the buy-in would be for an ownership stake — whether it would be a predetermined dollar amount in the tens of thousands or a certain percentage of your compensation, Young said.

Attorneys should also keep in mind that although a law firm's budget overages are shared by its equity partners, those partners also have to take the fall if such budget goals fall short of expectations, he said, whereas a nonequity partner is guaranteed a more fixed compensation not linked in that way to the firm's financial performance.

"The first thing [newer attorneys] should try to do is to find out just what being an equity partner means, [and] many young lawyers with great grades from fancy schools do not," said Young.

They should also consider factors including the firm’s track record with respect to budget overages and how are they shared, as well as how much control the firm's equity partners have over major financial decisions like expanding the firm's presence abroad or what kind of liabilities that they may be subject to.

"Bet some of the Dewey & LeBoeuf partners wish they had looked at that more closely," he said.

Practice in an Area Crucial to the Firm's Future

While talent and hard work are essential traits for attorneys eyeing equity partnership, one of the most important considerations is whether they practice in an area that is important to the firm or service its most important clients.

The question of whether an attorney practices in an area that the firm sees itself expanding or investing more in is a near-universal measure of his or her odds of making equity partner, according to Stephen Cowan of DLA Piper.

"Every law firm analysis of potential equity partners considers what you'd call the business case," said Cowan, who has been on the firm's committee that identifies potential equity partners from a pool of associates selected by their practice group leaders. "You can have an outstanding lawyer working with a group of people that just aren't very busy, and they aren't dedicated to a practice area that's essential to the company's future. That's a circumstance where a candidate can't demonstrate a strong business case for why they should be equity partner."

Sometimes winding up in a key practice area for the firm can be a matter of luck, but attorneys can also position themselves in such areas by seeking out mentors there and consulting with them, Cowan said.

Learn to Thrive in a Group

Although it is important for equity partner hopefuls to distinguish themselves by demonstrating leadership and business acumen, they should also show they work well in a group. One of the main ways that associates can do this is by taking the initiative to offer to work on projects that may come in at unexpected times.

"I think the source of the biggest angst for young attorneys is when a lead partner puts a query out at Friday at 5.30 p.m. or 6 p.m. for help with an assignment, and you think, 'Oh gosh, there goes my weekend' or 'Am I smart enough to stay and help on this?' " said Amy Hancock, director of professional development at Andrews Kurth LLP. "But if you do offer to help, I think it really shows you're willing to play on the team and help to get an assignment done on efficient time line."

Team skills are essential to equity partners, who often have broad management and delegation control over complex matters including large litigation projects, which require the partner to effectively hand down crucial information to others on the team and direct strategy, she said.

"There's rarely anything a law firm does that just involves one person, so you are always part of a team," she said. "I don't have any clients that have one singular need and need just one person's brain power. And especially the big bet-the-company matters or big litigation dockets rarely require one point of help and brain power. It's a collective practice."
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