This week, Lateral Link Director Tricia McGrath shares the inside scoop on what fifth years need to do to make sure they stay on track to become partner, and avoid the pitfalls that come with being passed over continually.

Law firm economics changed substantially over the past decade. Law firms now run like “businesses,” in corporate America parlance. In the last few years, many associates at top firms who thought that they were “on track” for partnership were unexpectedly passed over. Unfortunately, market conditions suggest that many more will be passed over in future years.

As a recruiter, I frequently speak with senior associates who were on the wrong side of partnership decisions, and as a result, realized the “out” side of the firm’s “up-and-out” policy. Many of these overlooked associates are now wondering how the train went off the track so quickly. Don’t the years of solid billables and strong reviews account for anything? For most of these associates, their best-case scenarios are a new position at another Biglaw firm with a three-year partner look — often going in to their new firm as a fifth or sixth year — or an in-house position at significantly less compensation (in most cases). Often, neither of these options is particularly attractive for the candidate.

How can you protect yourself from becoming a senior associate who has been passed over, has no business, and has limited job prospects?

It is not difficult, but you should take action early. As a fifth year associate, take critical stock of your career and your location on the “partner track.” Admittedly, there is a certain “intangible” required for making partner that is not easily explained. But an honest assessment will help you handicap your chances at partnership more effectively. None of these factors are rocket science, but it is surprising how few fifth year associates have thoughtfully analyzed them.

The following factors suggest that the firm views you as partnership material:

  • You are the most-highly regarded associate at your level in your practice group.
  • You have flawless (or nearly flawless) reviews.
  • You have very close relationships with the partners in your practice group who have firm-wide “political capital.”
  • You have good exposure in the firm outside of your practice group.
  • You have positive relationships with partners outside of your practice group.
  • You are in a practice group that routinely makes partners at your firm.
  • You have been working to develop a book of business (or a strong network of potential business) and have prospects for business in the next year.
  • You have very strong billable hours each year.
  • You are selected to work on firm-wide programs, including the associates’ committee or summer associate programs.

The following factors suggest that you may already be out of the running for partnership:

  • You are in a highly cyclical (bankruptcy, real estate) or support (tax, employee benefits) practice.
  • There is a glut of strong senior associates (2005+) in your practice.
  • You are unknown to partners outside of your practice group.
  • Your firm is very conservative in naming partners.
  • There is a “superstar” in one of the two practice group classes beneath you.
  • Your firm has been more severely hit by the recent downturn than other comparable firms.
  • Your firm has recently undergone a merger, or is rumored to be a merger candidate in the future.

If partnership is your ultimate goal, you should make certain that, by your sixth year, you are employed at a firm where you can make a run at partner. You want to ensure that you have enough time to become well-known and well-regarded both within your practice group and the firm. You’ll need to demonstrate that you’ll be a positive addition to the business of the law firm, and that you’ll be able to contribute in significantly beneficial ways. It isn’t an easy challenge, but it can be done!

Make sure that you do not linger at a firm where your partnership prospects are slight. A move only becomes more difficult as you become more senior. There are many eighth and ninth year associates who are regretting their decision to remain at their firm only to be passed over — though some have had to stay out of necessity as the market hasn’t been incredibly welcoming in the past few years. Of course, if you are a fifth year at a firm where you honestly believe that you have a shot, put your head down and make the run!

If your honest analysis yields the result that your partner prospects are dim at your current firm, there is an option. One strategic play is go to a lower-ranked AmLaw 100 firm as a mid-level, work hard to make partner and develop business, and then make a lateral move as a partner to a higher-ranked firm (if your goal is to be partner at a very strong firm.) Lateral partners with solid portable business are always marketable.

Feel free to contact any of the recruiting professionals at Lateral Link about law firm and in-house job opportunities. For additional career tips, check out the Career Center, powered by Lateral Link.