Picking partners

By Carolynne Burkholder-James Web Only

What law firm leaders want.

Picking partners

Licensed under Creative Commons by wvs

Legal skills balanced with people skills, ambition and a willingness to put in the kind of hours that get noticed. That’s just some of what law firm leadership looks for in partnership candidates.

Top-drawer legal skills are of course a crucial requirement at partner time, but an aptitude for black letter law is just the foundation on which a legal career is built. The walls and the roof come from other, sometimes unexpected places.

For example, James Speakman, Managing Partner at Clark Wilson LLP in Vancouver, says one attribute potential partners have is what he calls a “proprietary attitude.” “We are a business. We want people who act like an owner and are aware of the fact that we are running a business and there are business issues,” he says. Associates who want to become partners “become interested in the business of the firm and the business of the firm's clients.”

“We expect our associates to at least meet their budget if not more,” he says. “If that is combined with some client generation, that is great.”

Kevin Latimer, Managing Partner at Cox & Palmer in Halifax, says to catch his interest, aspiring partners should have an expertise in a particular area of law. On top of that, his firm looks for “proven performers” who can contribute to the firm’s business.

Jeremy D. Martin, Managing Partner at Carfra Lawton LLP, says trust is the key word for his firm. 

“We have to trust this person in a number of respects because they’re going to be business partners with us,” he says. “Can we trust them with financial information and confidential information? Can we trust them to continue to do the good work they have been doing as an associate? Can we trust them to help us build our business and build our client base and keep our clients happy? Can we trust that they will be here for the long term?”

Martin, who practises personal injury and insurance law, says partners at his boutique firm of 18 lawyers in Victoria start assessing an associate’s partnership potential very early on, to see how their work progresses and also to be able to properly gauge how the candidate fits in.

“There are a lot of different personalities within the partnership and I think that can be a good thing,” he says. “But if the person is not a good fit with everyone around the table, that could create problems.”

Martin J. Thompson, a partner at McMillan LLP in Ottawa with a practice focusing on labour and employment law, says while there’s no specific list of attributes they want in a partner, hard work and substantive skills are just the starting point.

Usually, they look for a mix of legal expertise and business development acumen, and good people skills. “We want people who are team players – internally inside the firm and externally in the community,” he says. And on top of that, “We’re looking for people who are innovative and modern.”

Carfra Lawton’s Martin says senior partners at his firm also assess an associate’s willingness to take the initiative.

“Are they coming to us with ideas on how we can grow our practice or how we can do things differently – whether it's with marketing or information technology or human resources? We always want to add some skills that we don't have around the partnership table that could be beneficial to all of us.”

David Elenbaas is the McMillan LLP Chief Professional Officer and co-chair of the Professional Services Committee, which oversees partnership admission.

He says that becoming a partner at a large business law firm requires a “blend of personal and professional attributes” including professional excellence, strong client service, respect, teamwork and commitment. 

Elenbaas, who practises labour and employment law in Toronto, says an associate who is familiar with an emerging area of law will stand out, as will those who keep up to date on the latest technologies.

But, Elenbaas cautions, these attributes and skills are often not enough for an associate to become partner. 

“I became a partner in 1989 during the ‘you're a good lawyer, nice guy and we have work for you to do era’ that got many of us into the partnership. The business of ‘big’ law has changed significantly since then. We, of course, have had to do more to remain successful partners in the changing marketplace,” he says.

A partner must now be able to generate work for themselves and for other lawyers at the firm, says Elenbaas.

“The days of sitting at one's desk and waiting for work to come in are long gone,” he says. “An effective partner needs to be able to attract, retain and expand client relationships.”

Carolynne Burkholder-James is an articling student at Heather Sadler Jenkins in Prince George, B.C. Before pursuing a career in law, she worked as a journalist for five years.

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