Making partner at a US firm: promotion strategies uncovered

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Making partner at any firm is tough – everyone knows that. But how great are the differences between firms when it comes to being made up?

Many law firms guard the secrets of their ­promotions process closely – which isn’t hugely helpful to those looking to make a lateral move as a junior or mid-level associate with one eye on future career prospects.

The Lawyer has taken a sample group of US firms, including two that have a hefty UK, and looked at the differences between their promotion processes. It quickly transpires that there are ­common trends in the profession when it comes to making partner, not least that some kind of business case is required, whichever firm you are at.

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But in fact, the differences in terms of what it takes to be made up can be pronounced. The Lawyer has previously reported on Kirkland & Ellis’s radically different approach to promotions, and its unique system is thrown into even sharper relief below. But even at firms that have superficially similar systems, such as Mayer Brown and Latham & Watkins, there are notable variations. Any analysis of who gets made up in London, in what department and at what PQE, casts light on how each firm operates and what its priorities are.

Reed Smith – no ‘one size fits all’ formula

Reed Smith has made up a total of 27 new partners since 2012. That’s 11 more than Latham, which has a similar number of associates.

“We are a global partnership with numerous offices around the world and by virtue of being full service, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula” to getting promoted, says partner Brigid North, made up in 2015.

“Obviously client relationships and your contribution to the wider firm have their place, but that’s not qualitatively applied. I work in real estate and because of that I naturally don’t have a $10m practice – that’s not a hurdle in and of itself.” Moreover, “Reed Smith has five key industry groups and real estate isn’t one of those, but that’s not a barrier either.”

Indeed, when City stalwart Richard Butler merged with Reed Smith a decade ago, the widespread assumption was that the London office would transform into more of a corporate and finance-focused beast, reflecting its new ­Pittsburgh partner.

In fact, Reed Smith has promoted into 11 ­different practice areas since 2012. Yes, the financial services group has seen the most promotions – eight out of 27. But the legacy Richards Butler shipping practice comes second, with four, and areas including pensions, IP, energy, real estate and media are all represented.

Candidates don’t have to do the ‘world tour’ meeting people in other offices either, as required in some international firms, although naturally it is helpful if they have been active in the life of the wider firm; for example in graduate recruitment or on the women’s committee.

Reed Smith has moved away from PQE specifications when it comes to promotions, North says. “There’s no magic number: it’s all about strengths and skills, though there does come a time when you feel you have sufficient experience and the battle scars, as it were. It came upon me quite suddenly – my practice group leader put it in my mind, saying maybe I might like to push for it sooner rather than later.”

The stats bear out the truth of North’s story. At Kirkland, making partner after 6PQE is unusual; past 8PQE it’s virtually unheard of. At Latham there is a definite peak at10PQE, but at Reed Smith, there is a much wider spread: since 2012, ten partners have been made up at 8 or 9PQE, eight at 10 or 11 PQE and six at 12PQE and beyond.

All that taken into account, candidates work with their mentors to put together a business case. The firm remains coy as to exactly who that business case is viewed by and what happens next, only revealing that candidates who get past that stage are invited to interview before the final decision is announced.
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Mayer Brown: seeking the ‘neutral view’

Since 2008, Mayer Brown has made up 252 partners globally, with 30 making the cut in London (12 per cent of the total). After Chicago and New York, London has seen the most promotions in the network in the last decade – though in recent years UK promotions have been relatively thin on the ground, with only one London associate per year made up in 2013, 2014 and 2015, and just two getting the nod in 2016 and 2017.

Between 2008 and 2012, London saw almost the same number of partners promoted as the Chicago head office (23 versus 24). Since then, Chicago has made up 41 partners and London just seven.

It’s not just London. Between 2008 and 2012, Mayer Brown made up 15 partners across Frankfurt and Cologne – but in the five annual promotion rounds between 2013 and 2017, no partner has been made up in Germany. There has been far more of a focus on Hong Kong, South America and the firm’s New York office.

In terms of who does get made up in London, dispute resolution lawyers have had the best shot in recent years. Six out of the 13 promotions since 2012 have come from that practice group.

In terms of the official process for making partner at Mayer Brown, it normally starts at seven years qualified, though informal discussions will have taken place before then. The process of putting a candidate forward begins with local partners who run through their past performance as well as their business plan and where they fit into the practice.

At the same time, each group in Mayer Brown is run on a global basis by firm-wide practice leaders. Those individuals will be talking to the local practice leaders and identifying what candidates are on the radar, as well as looking at the viability of that promotion within the context of the longer-term strategy of the group. A formal interview with the candidate follows, before the decision goes up to a promotions committee, with partners from across the firm represented.

The committee “grills with great certainty and precision the practice area leaders who present to them on behalf of the candidate and the practice,” says a senior source at the firm. “That is, in my view, a very good and transparent process that involves not just the decision of ­people locally, not just the decision of the global practice area, but also the ‘neutral view’ from outside areas and different practices.”

The final decision is then made by the firm’s management committee.

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Gender equality

There are significant differences between firms when it comes to promoting female associates. Of our sample firms, Reed Smith does best. Of 27 promotions since 2012, 12 (44 per cent) have been women. White & Case (39 per cent), Latham & Watkins (35 per cent) and Kirkland & Ellis (29 per cent) outstrip Mayer Brown (15 per cent).

“Of our sample firms, Reed Smith does best”

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White & Case: internationally minded

Large and long-established in London, White & Case tends to make up a good number of partners in the City each year – at least five in every ­promotion round since 2012. It is also the only one of The Lawyer’s sample firms that makes up more partners outside the US – just one third of lawyers promoted since 2012 were in the Americas, and a number of those were in Mexico City.

Nor is it uncommon for White & Case lawyers promoted in London – or indeed anywhere else – to begin their lives as a partner in a different office. This, says Oliver Brettle, executive partner of the London office, is simply a natural consequence of being such an internationally focused firm, with lawyers at all levels regularly moving between jurisdictions.

Working backwards, White & Case partners are promoted on 1 January each year, and the formal process begins the preceding April. That is the point when the regional section head – that is, the relevant practice group leader for EMEA, the Americas or Asia – puts together the list of associates he or she wants to enter into the formal partnership process.

“Naturally the assembling of that list doesn’t happen by magic in April,” says Brettle. “For the previous two years the regional section head will have been having discussions about what the pipeline is, and who is likely to be in the zone. So really the process begins as much as two and a half years before the person is actually promoted on that 1 January.”

While White & Case will make up partners as early as 8PQE, in practice only three have been promoted that quickly since 2012. It is far more common to get the nod at 9PQE or beyond.

For those people who are potentially on the list, training programmes are arranged in which they will be given guidance on the path to partnership. An associate won’t be put forward into the formal process unless there is a strong consensus within the practice that they are suitable.

Credit Line Required: © Matt Greenslade/
Oliver Brettle © Matt Greenslade/

“What we are really looking for first of all is that they have excellent legal skills. Linked to that is are they busy lawyers?” Oliver Brettle

“What we are really looking for first of all is that they have excellent legal skills – that their legal advice is of the very highest quality. That is something which either develops or not over time,” says Brettle.

“Linked to that, are they busy lawyers? Generally speaking, the best lawyers attract the most work. So there is better potential for them to contribute. Then there are other factors, like their ability to build and maintain client relationships, an ability to work in a collaborative manner, whether they can amend their ways of working to suit others, looking after the knowledge bases, and being a steward of the firm – demonstrating the firm’s values and hard work.”

Once they have been entered onto the list, the candidate understands they have been identified and then writes his or her business case.

“The regional section head is the primary ­person involved, but the candidates also have partners involved in sponsoring them, and the firm’s financial people also help them,” says ­Brettle. They meet a member of the executive committee and a member of the new partners committee for interviews, and give a short Power­Point presentation centred around their business case. This is followed by a fairly free-flowing ­discussion during which any questions can be discussed by those present.

After the interviews have taken place, the executive committee considers the candidates and makes its recommendation to the new partners committee. That meets and goes through the ­candidates once again, before they are put forward in a formal proposal to a meeting of the firm’s partners. The partner promotions are usually announced in mid-October.

As for who gets made up, while White & Case’s promotions are not spread over quite as many practice areas as Reed Smith’s, the firm by no means puts all its eggs in one basket, with the bulk of promotions evenly spread across finance work of various types, corporate, capital markets and both litigation and international arbitration.

“One thing that is very important is a business case of growth – and sustainable growth; not just for the moment of promotion,” Brettle says. “Looking down the track, is there a sustainable business case for forthcoming years?”

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Kirkland & Ellis: make partner quick – then move on

Kirkland & Ellis is notably different from the other firms in this sample – and indeed most other US firms – in its promotions strategy. It makes up partners sooner and in far greater numbers than its peers.

At least five associates have been made up every year since 2012 and eight got the nod in both 2014 and 2015.

It is standard practice for partnership to be ­conferred at 6PQE – sometimes a year sooner. Indeed, what you won’t see at Kirkland is lawyers of nine or 10 years PQE making partner ‘late’.

However, Kirkland’s different way of doing things also means that the odds of a long career with the firm after making partner is less of a ­certainty than elsewhere. Associates are first ­promoted to non-share (ie non-equity) partner, a title that pays significantly less than equity partner. Nor are non-share partners invited to partner meetings.

Non-share partners have four or five years to make it to share partner status and a stake in the equity. If they don’t, the expectation is that they’ll move on, and that’s exactly what has happened to 13 of the 34 lawyers made up since 2012. In other words, a third of newly-minted Kirkland partners move on within five years.

If you go back only a couple of years further, over 40 per cent of partners made up since 2010 have now left.

Around a third of the firm’s partners have an equity stake. Non-share partners receive a hefty six-figure annual salary but only earn a tiny fraction of what the top earners in the equity take home. The initial jump from senior associate to non-share partner is a small one.

What the Kirkland process does is create a huge additional leverage, because non-share partners are earning a fraction of what they’re billing. That’s great when the economy is booming, but not so good during the down times when non-share partners are not billing so much; then they became a huge fixed cost. Since London is mainly staffed by non-share partners (there are about 25 members of the equity), it means the firm’s City office can be hugely profitable.

Does the ‘non-share’ stepping stone make it easier to reach partner level at Kirkland than ­elsewhere? No, says a lawyer who has been through the process. “Promotion to non-share partner is quite a hard process and the ­conversion into share partner is even harder.”

While no easy ride, the Kirkland way of doing things might be an attractive one for a certain type of associate. If you want to move up the ladder quickly and have no special desire to stick around at the same firm for long, you could be a partner at Kirkland while your peers at other firms are still disillusioned senior associates.

Moreover, those who do leave Kirkland don’t have to step down a level when they leave. Of the 13 made up since 2012 who have since departed, 10 are now at other US firms, one joined the magic circle and two are working at private equity houses.

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Latham & Watkins – where associates have a say on partner promotions

The importance of the London office in Latham & Watkins’ wider global network is demonstrated by the fact it keeps pace with New York and ­Washington DC when it comes to the number of partner promotions since 2012.

Seventeen associates have been made up in the UK, compared to 19 in the US capital and 20 in the Big Apple. California remains the firm’s ­historic centre of power, however, with 40 promotions across five offices since 2012.

Lawyers who have gone through the partnership process at Latham say there is a very ­systematic review system is in place from NQ level onwards, with every piece of work done review­able by supervisors. At the end of each year each associate will be given a narrative summary of how they’ve performed. There are only five basic narratives, so in effect lawyers are marked on a five-point scale.

The partnership process kicks off in earnest at 5-6PQE, when associates interested in making partner are encouraged to put a business case together about how they see their practice developing in the next five years and beyond. Associates will normally pick a couple of partners to act as mentors who will review it.

Lawyers are told at around 6 or 7PQE whether they are on track for partnership, and eight full years post-qualification is the earliest they might expect to make partner. In practice, sources say it is not uncommon to ‘drop’ a year or two and indeed, only one of the 11 UK-qualified lawyers to be made up since 2012 managed it so quickly – that was the tax department’s Karl Mah in 2014. More typically, recent promotions have come between nine and 11 years PQE.

The process of being made up at Latham is unlike many law firms in that other associates play a role in the decision. The associate committee is the key body that works on who gets promoted, and it is comprised of a body of both partners and associates from offices right across the network. Members of the committee will speak to partners who the candidate has worked with in the past to put together a case for them.

“The idea behind the structure is you can’t make partner just by working for one single partner who happens to be a big hitter; equally your chances won’t be nixed if you’ve had a bad experience with one person,” one source says.

Each candidate’s home office and practice group will play a big part in lobbying for highly-­rated associates, meaning on the partnership side there have to be decisions made as to who to push in a given year. Ultimately, the decision is made by the associate committee, which comes to a consensus on who should be made up. That decision goes to a partner vote, but it is unusual for them to vote down the committee’s suggestion.

The corporate department is the practice area where more promotions come – by far. At least one corporate associate has been made up in eight of the last nine promotion rounds, and 65 per cent of all promotions in the London office have come from this department. When you consider that another 24 per cent have been in the finance department, it becomes clear where the heart of the firm lies.

Latham London is also not averse to promoting lawyers who have trained overseas. Since 2012, six of its 17 partner promotions (35 per cent) have been registered foreign lawyers. Compare that with 20 per cent at Kirkland, 4 per cent at Reed Smith and none at Mayer Brown.

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How influential is London?

Many firms claim to be ‘truly international’ and the stats show that if it is true of any firm, it is true of White & Case. Only 33 per cent of its promotions since 2012 have come in the Americas. Compare that to Mayer Brown, where 61 per cent of promotions take place in the States, Reed Smith, Latham (both 68 per cent) and Kirkland (a massive 82 per cent).

It’s not surprising that the majority of promotions at US-founded firms take place in the States, but how influential is ­London within the network? Again, White & Case leads here – 21 per cent of its partner ­promotions since 2012 have been in the City, compared to 18 per cent at Reed Smith, 15 per cent at Latham, 9 per cent at Kirkland and 8 per cent at Mayer Brown.

“White & Case leads – 21 per cent of its partner promotions have been in the City since 2012”

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Preparing for partnership

Whatever the firm, a business plan will always be needed in the quest to make partner. Associates should start planning early, advises Ruth Fenton, a lawyer and careers coach who currently manages the international arbitration and employment teams at Dechert.

“Think about trends in your field of law and where there is a real need for your services. Tailor your niche to that area”
Ruth Fenton

“Keep a record of things like the clients you have introduced to your firm and the fees collected on those matters; speaking engagements; papers and articles written; initiatives you have brought to the firm and additional learning you have undertaken,” she says. “Think about hot topics in your field of law and industry trends and where there is a need for your services. Tailor your niche to that area. Firms are looking for forward thinking, entrepreneurial-spirited people who understand market conditions and can adapt.”

Fenton also advises that getting a mentor is a useful step – but it’s a two-way relationship. “Learn from their mistakes and meet their contacts,” she says, “but in return promote them and introduce them to people you know who they might find useful.”

If you are thinking of moving firms to make partner, make sure to pick your target firm ­carefully. “Research every partner you will be working with and speak to people who know them or to them directly if you can,” says Fenton. “Do your due diligence, paying careful attention to firm figures. Is the firm growing, flatlining or declining?”

Making partner at your current firm can sometimes be harder than joining as a lateral, so if that’s your goal, create a plan with action steps. “Ask if they have partnership track coaching, ­create a business plan and volunteer for everything you can,” Fenton suggests.

“Ask for more responsibility. Keep your billable hours as high as possible. Mentor junior staff. Get involved on firm committees. Follow advice from your last appraisal. Promote the firm through networking events and social media such as Linked­In. Ask business development to help you create a one-page marketing plan so you can start bringing in new clients. And take advantage of all the training programmes you can at the firm.”

The path to partnership is long and winding – but ambitious associates don’t have to walk it in the dark.

The post Making partner at a US firm: promotion strategies uncovered appeared first on The Lawyer | Legal News and Jobs | Advancing the business of law.

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