Success in the legal profession means different things to different people. For some, making partner at a large law firm is the pinnacle of their career. While not all aspects of the partnership process are under an attorney’s control, including firm economic pressures or firm politics, there are other factors that an associate can control on the path to partnership. Technical skills, performance, and attitude are factors that an associate can control. The most important controllable factor is the relationships an associate cultivates on his or her way to becoming partner.
While some workplace relationships can evolve by coincidence, if you want to make partner, you should develop a strategic mindset about professional relationships. Networking should not just be reserved for building your book of business. You should also network inside your firm and across your firm’s offices. However, there is an art to creating these relationships without seeming disingenuous. Cultivating strong, lasting relationships that can open doors for you is one of the most important factors to making partner and advancing your career.
Below are six critical steps associates should take to build strong relationships to create the foundation for a successful legal career.
1. Define Your Career Strategy
Being thoughtful about your professional goals, including making partner, is key. Self-reflection is the first step. Be honest with yourself — do you really want to make partner or is having time to pursue your other interests more important to you? Once you affirmatively decide that you want to make partner, you need to create a plan.
Let your plan be known, but do not be arrogant about it. Consider what skills you might lack (presentation, business development, or litigation skills), or the political alliances to help make partner. With your plan in mind, think about who at the firm can help you reach your goals. While this sounds calculated, if you ask for help to achieve your goals and approach relationships in a genuine and respectful way, you are likely to receive the help you need while forming lasting relationships that will aid in your long-term career development. Relationship building with senior attorneys in other practice groups and other offices is a way to expand your reach within the firm, promote your professional reputation and create allies who can testify to what kind of partner you will be.
2. Invest in the Firm
Your career and future in the profession is not entirely dependent on the work you produce. The path to partnership is also built on investing in the firm. While your billable hour demands are significant time commitments, to stand apart from other attorneys, and prove yourself as “partnership material,” you must also do nonbillable work.
Go to lunch with other attorneys, attend social events at the firm, and become involved in firm service, no matter how busy you are. This is your career and life. You need to be invested. Pro bono work, involvement in recruitment efforts, sitting on firm-wide committees and mentoring junior attorneys are all ways to demonstrate that you are a dedicated member of the team and are committed to the firm. These efforts can make all the difference when it comes to helping you stand out from other associates who are being considered for partnership. Orient yourself with people in your practice, both in your office and in other offices.This is how you develop relationships that will help on your path to making partner.
3. Don’t Just Find a Mentor – Find a Champion, Too
Mentors are a great go-to resource for career advice and guidance, but a champion goes a step further. A champion will use his or her social and political capital to open doors for you. Champions are willing to give references, connect you with your first client or bring you unforeseen advancement opportunities.
Identify people in your firm who have political capital and resources — people who can be your mentor, champion, protector or all three. Your champion does not have to be your best buddy, but strong mutual respect and trust is required for him or her to open doors for you.
4. Your Mentor Does Not Need to Have Your Demographic Traits
While you may naturally form close relationships with other attorneys of your same gender, age, ethnicity, etc., it is important to branch out. Not every bond will be deep and meaningful, but having a variety of alliances throughout the firm can be beneficial in closed-door conversations when you are not present, or when your like-minded allies are not present.
The more alliances you have at the firm, the more leverage you will have when it is time for promotion and partnership.
5. Form a Two-Way Relationship
Find a connection with a potential mentor that goes beyond business. Connect on a personal level. That is how to make a genuine, lasting relationship.
Think of ways you can make the relationship beneficial for both of you. Does your mentor need help with a presentation? Does he or she have pro bono work you can assist with? Would it beneficial for him or her to have an assistant at the next business pitch? Think of ways you can become an indispensable asset to your mentor and the firm. This way of “giving back” demonstrates your appreciation for the time and care your mentor has invested in you.
6. Curb Your Ego
All too often, lawyers fail to show their vulnerabilities. It is crucial to put your ego aside with your mentor and admit to career obstacles and failings. While it may take some time to know who to trust and how much to trust them, once you know who to confide in, being vulnerable is best way to receive the raw advice and feedback necessary to progress in your career.
Demonstrating this behavior will likely encourage your mentor to let his or her guard down and share real and honest experiences. Learning from your mentor’s mistakes is a great way to not make the same mistakes yourself.
Becoming a firm partner is not just about the work you produce, it is about the relationships you build at your firm and within in the legal community. Create opportunities for yourself to be mentored or to mentor others, and do not expect these opportunities to just fall in your lap. Being systematic about creating these relationships will provide you more control and fulfillment in your career, in addition to helping you advance on the path to partnership.
Rebecca Glatzer is managing director of Major Lindsey & Africa’s associate practice group. She is a former real estate attorney and family law litigator.