Law firm partnership: Should I stay, or should I go?

Written by Andy Wintle



Law firm partnership: Should I stay, or should I go? 

Why making a lateral move may be better than staying at your current firm (and some tips on how to get there)

By Cyan Partners

If you believe partnership can only be achieved by moving through the ranks of your current firm, now is the time to think again. 

The City has seen some intense activity in lateral partner placements in the past year.
US law firms have been the most prolific hirers, increasing their London-based partner numbers by an average of 24% [1]. 

In 2023, Paul Weiss topped the charts with 14 lateral Partner hires, and UK firms Addleshaw Goddard and Eversheds Sutherland followed close behind with 9 lateral partner hires each [2]. 

This trend has continued into 2024, with 101 partner hires taking place in the first two months of the year alone, almost a third of which involved moves by non-partners into their first partnership roles [3]. 

The market isn’t slowing down any time soon as we head into the new financial year. It’s an opportune time for senior associates interested in making the move to partnership to start exploring all their options.

In fact, lawyers often come to us with this question: is it better to stay at my current firm or make a fresh start elsewhere if I want to make partner? Of course, that depends on your individual circumstances and career goals, but there are certain factors to consider when weighing up whether you should stay at your current firm or go somewhere new. 

This article explains what to look for in an ideal partnership position and gives you some useful tips on how to get there. 

What should you think about when joining a firm’s partnership?

As you explore different options for partnership and open up discussions with law firms, it is worth doing some soul searching to figure out what you want from this next – in equal parts exciting and daunting – stage of your career. 
Your working style, priorities and goals should be at the forefront of your mind as you choose the type of law firm you want to join as a partner. 

There are various factors to consider, from remuneration to team size and structure, and you should be prepared to identify the key elements of a firm which will impact on your role and growth as a partner. 

This section aims to guide you on the journey to securing your ideal partnership role.  

1.         Culture

You should understand a firm’s culture and whether it creates an environment that suits you and where you can thrive as a partner (and help others thrive in, too). 

Does the firm encourage a healthy work-life balance and provide flexibility to balance professional and personal demands? Does it foster a culture of learning and development? Is there a fair distribution of opportunities and a proper allocation of credit and reward for hard work? 

These are all questions that an experienced recruiter with in-depth market knowledge can help you navigate. They are crucial issues to consider at the point of entering a firm’s partnership, because you will feel the effects of a poor or negative culture much more vividly as a new partner than you did as an associate. 

As you find your feet and deal with the new challenges and responsibilities that come with partnership, you will appreciate being part of a supportive and collaborative organisation. If this doesn’t sound like your current firm, then it’s worth looking into other options. 

2.    Remuneration

Ensuring you get the best financial deal is important after years of countless sacrifices and hard work. Firms offer different remuneration structures at the partnership level, including (quasi) salaried, fixed share, lockstep and full equity structures. 

It is highly unlikely you’ll go straight into a full equity partner position, but it’s still important to understand the options available and how you will progress through the firm’s different partnership levels.            

There’s truth in the saying that a prospective employer will always value you more than your current one does, so looking into lateral partnership options elsewhere may also pay off from a compensation perspective. 

3.    Department and Firm Direction 

Are you satisfied with the direction your department and wider firm are heading in? Does it align with your individual career aspirations? Will it play to your strengths and core offering, or leave you on the firm’s margins? 

Your goal should be to join a firm where your main offering in terms of technical, sector or client expertise aligns with the firm’s core practice, or with an area prioritised for future growth.

In other words, you want a firm that will spend resources on building your legal practice and team. This will also protect you in downturns and slow periods, as your team won’t be the first to get earmarked for cuts and restructuring.  

4.    Business Case

Simply being a good lawyer, even if combined with excellent soft skills and marketing ability, is often no longer enough to guarantee your place on the partner track. It’s no longer a question of keeping your head down, knowing your stuff and clocking the hours      to guarantee that promotion. 

You must have a compelling business plan demonstrating your potential to make a profit for the firm. You will have to fight off a lot of competition from equally talented lawyers.  The existing partners are offering you ownership, so you’ll need to prove yourself.  

Your current firm simply may not have the business or profit margins to promote you, or there may be too much competition from your peers. When it comes to partnership, timing and self-awareness are essential . That’s why it’s important to keep your options open; the more firms you build a rapport with, the greater your chances of finding the one with the space to turn your business plan into a reality.      

It’s also worth highlighting the practical reality that it may be significantly easier to join a new firm as a first-time partner than make a lateral move as an existing partner. 

Firms are often more lenient when it comes to assessing the merits of a business case for a first-step partner than they would be for an existing partner. They will consider a lower threshold for transferrable clients and business and assess you on your potential rather than current originations. They understand that as a senior associate or legal director, you likely have much less time for business development and do not benefit from the status and credibility of the Partner title.

In practice, it may be easier for you to move to a different firm as a new partner rather than as an existing partner. So, if you’re not sure that your current firm is the one for you long term, it may strategically be better for you to move firms at the point of becoming a partner (rather than following your promotion to one). 

Tips on how to make a successful move into partnership 

Hopefully this article has helped you understand which factors to weigh up when considering your partnership options. 

Finally, here are some top tips on how to make your application stand out from the competition: 

1.    Develop your personal brand early in your career to increase your chances of building a client base which is unique and tied to you. Think about what sets you apart as a lawyer and the kinds of clients you can attract with your skills and offering. Consider the best channels to develop your brand identity and get to work straight away. 

2.    Don’t underestimate the importance of soft skills and “citizenship”. Law firms want leaders, strategists, and innovators as well as money-makers. You need to demonstrate the additional value you can bring to the firm. Do you have experience of implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives? Are you good at mentoring junior lawyers? Do you understand ESG risks and opportunities? Highlighting leadership skills will set you apart from other candidates in a busy market. 

3.    Adopt an “ownership mentality”. This is crucial if you want to take control of your career and achieve your partnership ambitions. Stepping out of your comfort zone and exploring avenues beyond your current firm is an important part of that process, even if you ultimately decide not to make a move.  

The road to partnership can be a tricky process to navigate, and it’s not always easy to judge the best path to take. Many senior associates will be asking themselves the same question The Clash did in the iconic song: “Should I stay, or should I go?”. 

Cyan Partners is a legal recruitment business with extensive industry experience. We specialise in partner and senior level legal recruitment. Andy Wintle, Gerry Arbuckle and Sarah Coughtrie are specialists in private practice partner recruitment. They have an excellent track record of placing current and prospective partners into new roles. Contact Andy, Gerry or Sarah today if you’re interested in exploring partnership opportunities outside of your current firm. 

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