Ask the Coach

  • January 01, 2014
  • Gary Mitchell

Q: "What can I be doing to ensure I make partner?"

A: Each firm will have its own specific criteria for making partner. So for the purposes of answering your question, I will focus on broad based tactics that will help you chart a successful career, which can lead to you becoming partner.

When your destination is partnership, there are three key things you can do to steer your career in the right direction: develop your legal skills; build internal relationships and take key strategic steps at various stages of your career.

Hone Your Legal Skills

It goes without saying that in order to become partner at your firm you will have to have well developed legal skills. The focus of legal skill development changes over the years.  Ideally, the first few years of practice involve exposure to as many different areas of the law as possible.  Learn as much as you can and take on as much responsibility as you are comfortable with. 

By years three and four, start to think about what areas of law interest you.  There are so many possibilities in law, pick one or a few.  What kind of lawyer do you want to be?  Then start taking steps to learn as much about those areas as you possibly can.  Learn the “jargon” and learn about the industry.

Next, talk to people. Go to junior partners in your practice area at the firm and ask them what they found most valuable in CLE programming? Connect with the practice group leader and let them know that you are interested in their area of law. You way want to approach other more senior lawyers well. The more people who can offer you potential work the better.

Next, if your firm is like most then you have a mentoring program. The best way to make the most out of any mentoring program is to be proactive in relationships with mentors. Go to them and ask for specific help or guidance. Let them know your goals. They have been where you are and have a lot of wisdom they could offer. Don’t wait for them to come to you—go to them. If your firm has a formal program and your mentor is not offering you the support you need, find another partner who will. This is your career—never stop going after what will help you become successful.

Again, most large firms have a person charged with professional development of students and associates. This person could be invaluable to you if you take advantage of their help. Like with your mentor relationship, learn to become proactive. Take that person out for lunch and let them know your plans.   Ask for their advice on how to turns those plans into success. Perhaps they can help you create a practice plan or career plan. They will support you as much as you ask them for. In most cases they are frustrated with the lack of ‘taking charge’ among associates, so if you do that you will have a willing partner in the success of your career.

Build Internal Relationships

Are you leveraging the collective knowledge of the professionals who work at your firm (assistants, marketing, library/resource centre, administrators)? How about other lawyers (seniors, juniors, peers)?

Here’s how to leverage the collective knowledge of the people around you:

Support staff and management:

  • Get to know the individuals on your support team (everyone from your assistant, to marketing, administration, it, finance, HR, and the librarian.
  • Find out what exactly they do?
  • What are their frustrations?
  • Is there any way you can help them become more successful?
  • Share your own career goals
  • Ask them what can they do for you?
  • And how can you make it easier for them to help you?
  • Build bridges and friends

Be likeable and helpful with everyone you come into contact with and you will never lack for support

Approaching other lawyers at the firm:

  • Similar approach as with staff
  • Get to know them, their goals, frustrations, how you can help them and how you can work together
  • If you are more senior offer to partner with juniors to create articles of presentations (cutting down on the time each of you invest in this)
  • If you are junior, approach the senior lawyers and offer to do the up front research for an article or presentation if they will co-author the piece.
  • At any stage of your career you can begin to build relationships and organic teams (people you like to work with who are like minded and on the same path, either ahead or behind you)

Make non-billable contributions to your firm:

  • What committees can you contribute to?
  • How can you support student and associate programs or recruitment efforts?
  • Is there some form of community work that would position the firm well with its clients?
  • What types of leadership roles can you take on within your practice groups?
  • Is there someone more junior than you that you could mentor?
  • What other ways can you personally contribute to the success of your firm and…
  • If you don’t know, ask

These are definitely areas that most firms look at when considering associates for partners. It boils down to this. Are you one of us? Do you get along well with others? And, are you making a contribution to the success of the firm in some way?

Be Strategic at Different Stages of Your Career

Strategies for Mid-Level and Senior Associates (profile and relationship building in your target market, practice planning)

First, create a plan for your practice. Understand your target audience. At this point you have likely narrowed your choices of practice area or areas. Now you need to become effective at finding them or making it easier for them to find you, getting in front of them and building your profile.

Simple tactics include:

  • Joining associations that target your market
  • Getting involved in those associations (volunteer on boards)
  • Speak at association events
  • Write articles for association publications and others that target your audience
  • Provide on site seminars to current clients and prospects
  • Look for alliances with other like minded professional service providers who also target your audience

Making Non-Equity or Equity Partner

At this stage you will continue to build your profile to your target audience but now will be focused on client development that leads to origination matters, client development with firm clients, building your practice and proving that you offer the firm a sustainable practice.

Client development and management (Your Clients):

  • Do High Quality Work
  • Communicate with Clients regularly
  • Make a list of current clients that you wish to develop further (that is to say that you would like to be able to offer more services to them)
  • Set up meetings with those clients and do full discoveries into their needs, challenges, goals, reporting structure, where would there be ways to provide added value, what are the types of things they like about how you serve them, what could you be doing better, what are some of their other law firms not doing right, what are they doing right. Etc.
  • When you have confirmed their needs with them, make introductions to other lawyers who would be capable of taking care of those needs (cross selling)

Client development and management (firm clients):

  • Start by identifying other like minded lawyers within your firm who you enjoy working with
  • Find out what their goals are
  • Find out what their clients may need of you
  • Let them know what your clients might need of them
  • Create organic teams amongst yourself
  • Choose a leader
  • Create the cross selling (value added strategy)
  • Go and meet those clients and do the same type of discovery (as a team)

Team development:

  • Look at the needs of your clients and determine what you need in the way of people and skills for the team you are building to serve them.
  • Take the time to meet with juniors, find out if your needs (client needs) meet their goals and see if there is a fit.
  • Now you will be in the mentor role. Take the time to develop your team so that they can surpass the needs of your clients
  • Share your vision with each member one-on-one and help them see themselves in that vision-what will their role be in it and serving the clients
  • Find out what areas they would like to develop and delegate certain tasks to them
  • Help them develop skills as required
  • Lead by example and always be available for support
  • Provide regular feedback, constructive and positive
  • Be thankful to them for their contribution

Do the above and you will have built a sustainable practice and be well on your way to equity partnership.

Gary Mitchell is a business development coach, and the Managing Director of GEM Communications, where he leads an international team of consultants, coaches and trainers who assist lawyers and Law Firms prepare for the future, one leader at a time. Gary can be reached at or 604.669.5235. 

Neither the author nor the CBA should be construed as endorsing any product or website listed in this article. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CBA.
In this document, any reference to "jurist" or "lawyer" includes, where appropriate, "Québec notary".