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The four stages of a Partners career

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Understanding the four stages of partner’s career is key to improving their contribution to your law firm, says Mike Mister and Rob Lees. With her 20-year anniversary as a partner coming up next month, Carole’s thoughts turn back to the excitement and trepidation she felt when she’d been asked to join the partnership. Excitement at the prospect of making it to partner had been her driving force since she’d joined the firm some ten years earlier. But, there was trepidation, too; she knew she really had to deliver and that she was basically starting out all over again.

Although that fateful day only seems like yesterday in many ways, Carole knows she’s done well in the intervening years. She’s built a very successful practice, been managing partner of one of the firm’s biggest offices for a time, and is highly respected by both her clients and her colleagues. Any way you look at it, her career has been a success.

But, she wants that success to spill over into what she increasingly believes is the most important thing she could do – to ensure her younger partners inherit an even better firm. Maybe it is because retirement is looming in about seven years, but Carole knows she wants her retirement to be marked by more than great client reviews and a very healthy bank balance.

This small vignette is a composite created from hundreds of discussions with partners during their careers. What all of these discussions revealed was that life as a partner consists of four distinct phases.

Other than the first phase (which starts with admission to the partnership), when each phase commences and how long it lasts is dependent upon the individual partner. However, there are some clearly recognisable trends in timing, themes, characteristics, and preoccupations.

Of course, we are not suggesting that partners have only one preoccupation in each of the phases. Rather, during each phase, one particular theme tends to be a higher priority and concern.

Phase 1: Establishing their practice

One way of thinking about the phases in a partner’s career is to focus on the overriding preoccupations during each phase of the partner’s working life. On joining the partnership, a new partner’s key concerns are to be seen as an equal by their fellow partners and to bring in more in revenues than they take out in distribution.

Achieving these goals means building a practice and a reputation of their own, not being responsible for any quality failings or risk-related issues, and putting some distance between themselves and the people who were their colleagues a few days earlier.

Phase 2: Becoming their own brand

At some stage (in our research, after about five years), a new partner realises that other, newer partners are asking them for advice and guidance. For some, this is a rapid transition, for others it takes longer. However, when it does occur, the (not so new) partner realises that they are now seen to be a regular contributor and have lost the ‘new’ tag.

This realisation brings with it the key understanding that they are seen as a true equal by their fellow partners; someone who is trusted by their colleagues as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and who is invited to sit on important working parties.

But, their recognition isn’t confined to their internal dealings; they are also recognised as a ‘name’– someone who has a personal brand and reputation – within their chosen field of expertise, specialism, or industry.

Phase 3: Recommitting to the partnership and its values

In the third phase of the progression, which is likely to be around the partner’s late 40s to early 50s, the partner starts to reflect back upon their career and the notion of stewardship seems to take higher profile – a need to leave the partnership in better shape than the one they joined, to have added value for the future generations.

Although not in every case, this period of reflection can coincide with some partners needing to recalibrate and obtain a ‘second wind’. Despite partners in the third phase usually being at the very top of their game, with high billings and a market and organisational reputation to match (as well as being the partners entrusted with sensitive matters of reputational protection), some find that, after 15 to 20 years of doing broadly the same thing, they need to take stock.

This taking stock usually takes the form of reflecting on why they became a partner in the first place, the excitement that making partner engendered and the enjoyment that being a partner has brought. This is almost always followed by a really positive recommitment to the partner’s career and to the partnership and its values – with stewardship very firmly at their core.

One of the great paradoxes of this phase is that the recommitting partners are typically extremely busy and have little spare capacity to enable them to give more to the firm, yet they always find the time to put extra effort into building an even better firm.

Phase 4: Leaving a legacy and celebrating a life’s work

As their working life proceeds towards its inevitable conclusion, a partner’s thoughts turn to the nature of how they will be remembered. The preoccupation in this phase, which often kicks in around three to five years before retirement, is the nature of the legacy that the partner will leave behind.

The reality for most partners who have invested much of their working life in the partnership is that they have a deeply held and fierce pride in their firm – with the collusion of ownership and management making this even stronger. Retiring partners are generally deeply committed to making a final contribution in the last few years of their time with the firm.

“Some firms struggle to remunerate senior partners who are doing exactly what is best for the firm, as their billings typically reduce significantly”

In most firms, the most valuable contribution a partner can make during this phase isn’t to do more client work but, rather, mentoring and coaching younger partners, and helping them to develop effective relationships and to build their individual brands. It is also a time for passing on relationships to their younger partners.

“The most successful firms believe their partners are more than mechanisms to generate profits for the partnership”

While every firm recognises this reality, some firms struggle to remunerate senior partners who are doing exactly what is best for the firm, as their billings typically reduce significantly. However, understanding the preoccupations and necessities associated with each of the phases, and this one in particular, should enable every firm’s remuneration committee to recognise broader contributions than billings.

While the retiring partner’s preoccupation is their legacy, the firm’s focus must be on ensuring that a working life within the partnership receives the celebration it so richly deserves. Retirement should never be a whimper, but rather a multifaceted way of remembering the successes of life as a partner.

Transition management

While elements of this model are, to some extent, intuitive, the four phases provide another way of thinking about partners’ careers and, when used effectively, enable the firm’s partners to maintain their effectiveness throughout their careers. This is especially important because, for the majority of partners, there is a time during their career (usually in the third phase, after 15 to 20 years in the partnership) when their momentum slows and they need to be reenergised and refocused.

Keeping partners focused and energised, regardless of the phase they are in, typically requires a number of enablers; there are some which are substantially more effective than others. At the top of the list are effective and future-focused conversations and performance reviews, where the discussion embraces not just past performance but what the partner wants to do over the next, say, five years (there’s no specific timescale, it really is individually dependent). It is only after this dialogue that is it possible to fix realistic career goals, which can be used to drive any development initiatives.

While there are likely to be a number of important development initiatives, there are two that are key to success. The first is providing each partner with an effective coach – someone whose knowledge of professional service firms (PSFs) is suitably deep for them to context their discussions within the firm’s activities. All too often, we have seen coaches fail to provide effective contexting, thereby dramatically reducing the effectiveness of their help and support.

The second piece of help and support that makes a difference is ensuring each partner has an effective mentor. A senior partner can help the partner to manage their career through the firm (particularly through the first two phases but, when appropriate, into the third) by providing guidance on what works, what doesn’t, and how best to navigate the politics that inevitably exist in any firm.

The final thing that makes a difference isn’t actually a piece of development; it’s a part of the firm’s belief system. The most successful firms believe their partners are more than mechanisms to generate profits for the partnership. These firms see the whole person and recognise that their partners will only be at their most effective if all aspects of their life are in balance.

Sometimes, this can be exceptionally difficult for both the individual and the firm, but it doesn’t alter the core issue that the whole person is what matters and that the firm’s job is to provide whatever help and support it can to its people.

A fifth phase?

Now, let’s go back to Carole. Like nearly every partner, when retirement beckons, she will not actually be thinking of ‘hanging up her boots’. Instead, she will be planning an active life within the corporate, professional or public domains where she can use the expertise she has developed over her years as a partner.

So, given that Carole and many other partners desire to continue to work after retiring from the firm, there should really be a fifth phase in a partner’s career – that of life after the partnership. Retired partners can provide access to very lucrative markets and are a natural source of business referrals to the firm. This is a reality that supports the development of effective alumni programmes.

“Retired partners can provide access to very lucrative markets and are a natural source of business referrals to the firm”

The fact that so many partners now take on a commercial life after their time in the partnership makes a strong case for firms to provide effective pre-retirement career management sessions. These should include advice on how to use their brand and provide introductions to agencies which, for example, help companies to find executive and non-executive directors.1

Career conversations

The above five phases of a partner’s career provide an architecture for building development, support and succession management initiatives. They provide another way to segment the partner population and suggest the type of development initiatives that should be created.

However, as always, models like these are only effective if the firm takes on the development task and, particularly, holds effective conversations, including future-focused performance reviews, with their partners – something that too many firms still fail to do.

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