It’s usually pretty difficult to claim utter surprise if and when you don’t make partner at your law firm.
“There aren’t many firms out there that don’t conduct regular, explicit reviews with their associates at least once a year, and sometimes more,” says Andrew Jewel, vice president of national operations for Hudson Legal. During these evaluations, Jewel stresses, associates typically get a detailed picture of where they stand when it comes to what they’re doing well, what they need to do better and their future partnership prospects.
While you may not be blind-sided when you hear partnership isn’t in the cards (yet), you’ll undoubtedly be concerned about what you should do next. Fortunately, you have options.
Should I Stay?
The most obvious choice may be to stay right where you are and keep trying to make partner with your current firm -- a move that’s more common (and often more realistic) than you might think.
“Just because you don’t make partner the first time around doesn’t mean you never will,” says Jewel. “Years ago, it used to be up or out -- you either made partner or you looked elsewhere. That’s less and less the case now.”
However, if you simply continue doing exactly what you’ve been doing the way you’ve already been doing it, you can’t expect to eventually become partner. It’s critical you ask your supervisor for clear guidance on how to improve your partnership chances.
“You need to arrange a time to sit with a partner or partners and ask very pointed questions,” Jewel says. “If there was an [associate] class of 30 and 15 people made partner, you need to ask, ‘What do they have that I don’t?’”
You might learn, for example, that you need to bring in more business, in which case you could check out widely available continuing education programs on marketing for lawyers, Jewel says. Or you may be asked to boost your visibility and credibility by pursuing speaking engagements and media interview opportunities.
Or Should I Go?
If you opt to leave the firm and take your chances elsewhere, it’s all a matter of deciding what “elsewhere” should be.
“You could join another firm and even be partner there. You could start your own practice. You could practice law in a different setting -- for example, in-house at a corporation, nonprofit, or government agency. Or you could transition to another field entirely if you’re ready to try life outside of law,” says Deborah Schneider, author of Should You Really Be a Lawyer?
If you decide specifically to look for a partnership-track job with another firm -- either with the help of a recruiting service or on your own -- you’ll need to be ready to explain your reasons to prospective employers. After all, they may wonder why you didn’t make partner at your current firm as well as what you’ll be able to bring to the new firm, says Jewel.
That’s where one-on-one career guidance can be a tremendous help, says Schneider, who has worked as a career counselor at both the University of California Hastings College of Law and the University of San Francisco School of Law. She cites that the additional help from a third party can be an asset with assessment, networking and the job search process, especially if you determine a career change is in order.
“This can be an opportunity to do something new that you enjoy just as much, or even more,” she says. “Life is short and we spend much of our lives at work. So try to approach this [situation] as a fresh opportunity to explore myriad paths.”