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The road to partnership

Hard work and patience pays off for business-savvy associates.

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You’ve graduated from law school. You been called to the Bar and landed your first job as an associate. Now what? For many lawyers there is only one goal left—making partner.

David Little, managing partner at Dentons’ Ottawa office, says becoming a partner is not the Holy Grail it once was. Some lawyers view the time and financial commitment required as more than they are willing to put in. To accommodate those lawyers, many firms have developed permanent associate and counsel roles.

But for those taking a more traditional career route, partnership is still the ultimate goal. R. Ross Wells, chair of Gowlings’ partnership admissions subcommittee, admits that money is part of the appeal.

“The road to partnership is certainly also the same road that leads to significantly increased income,” says Wells. “They sort of run together.“

Navigating that road can be a challenge—and it can take time. Most Canadian firms now follow a two-tier partnership model. Associates are eligible to become an income or non-equity partner after six or seven years, depending on the firm. It can then take anywhere from another three to six years to make the leap from income partner to full equity partner.

At bigger firms, eligible associates are reviewed at the local level once a year before being recommended to a national management or admissions committee. Ultimately, the final vote is left to the managing partners that sit on a Canada-wide board of directors.

Although gaining entry to partnership is definitely not a “one-size-fits-all” process, Wells says there are two main things they look for when evaluating associates: that they have demonstrated a willingness and ability to work hard, and that they have gained the confidence of both partners and clients.

He says the biggest mistake many young lawyers make is failing to grasp that the practice of law is also a business. From day one they should be nurturing contacts and getting out in the community. “Because that is how, ultimately, works comes in.” Little says that if a lawyer is really interested in becoming partner, they should look to those who have achieved that goal. “Make sure you take time getting to know them and how they have made the transition from being a more junior lawyer to senior lawyer, then an income partner, and then a full equity partner. And learn from them.”


Top Tips for Making Partner

1.     Become an excellent lawyer in an area that really interests you

2.     Become a trusted adviser to your clients

3.     Learn from the successes and challenges of your clients

4.     Get out in your community and meet people

5.     Get involved with your firm through recruitment or mentoring

6.     Learn from the career path of your firm’s partners

7.     Identify challenges in your practice and come up with possible solutions

8.     Ask for guidance on partnership admission and act accordingly

9.     Take time to acknowledge the support of others; it is hard to do it all on your own

10.   Understand that reaching partnership isn’t the sole measure of a successful career