Passed Over for Partner

How to Salvage Your Career and Your Self-Esteem

passed over for partner
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Midway up the lawyer ladder of career accomplishments, right after 'graduate from law school', 'pass the bar exam', 'get a job', 'win a case', is 'make a partner'. Yet, not everyone in a law firm, large or small, is promoted to partner, whether it’s the first time they’ve been considered or the second. What’s a lawyer who has been passed over for a partner to do?

An associate who did not make the cut may not have much of a choice about next steps.

It depends on the firm and upon what the associate was told upon being informed that he was up for partnership but has not been elevated. Sometimes, it’s “up or out,” meaning that if you do not make partner, you will need to move on, typically within a specified period of time. At other times, an associate might be told she will be considered again next year.

Passed Over for Partner

Passed over for partner? Okay, then, stew about it for a while, preferably far from the office. Yes, this is a big disappointment, something of a setback, not what you expected of yourself or your firm. Really wallow for a bit, feel sorry for yourself, cry, curse, overindulge in chocolate, vodka, whatever takes the edge off, for a while. Of course, it is best to engage in any of these activities within the privacy and sanctuary of your own home and within reason. Throw too much of a hissy fit at the office and your prospects likely will not improve.

If you must drown your sorrows, do it on your own time and in your own space, not your firm’s.

Make a Plan

Then get up and make a plan. Anyone who has been passed over for a partner can make the experience the worst of his life or the launch of something spectacular. If an associate has not been pushed out the door, she will need to plan her next career steps carefully after being truly candid with herself about what exactly transpired.

A lawyer passed over for partner will need to consider what is going on with the legal market, what is going on with her law firm, and what’s going on with her.

Starting with the broader picture, consider where your firm is in relation to the legal market as a whole. Is your firm a leader in its niche, or is it struggling? Are you an energy lawyer at a moment when the oil industry is tanking? Have you focused your practice on bank foreclosures at a moment when the real estate market is on the upswing? 

Focus, too, on what exactly is transpiring within your firm. Has your firm had a good year or a tough one? Are partners seeking to share the wealth with a new set of partners, or are they trying to hold on to what they can for as long as they can? Consider who did make partner this time around and how those lawyers differ from you in terms of professional accomplishment and skill. Which internal advocates were promoting them, and which ones were championing you?


Where you will need some reflective candor is in assessing your own worth to your firm. That you were just passed over for partner tells you something significant about it. Did you have a sponsor, a big-dog advocate, who pushed your candidacy?

Do you have a mentor who has been able to provide real feedback that you have used to change the way you work? Have you made any major screw-ups of the sort that are gossiped about at firm functions? Could you possibly be considered lackluster or a slacker? Do slackers ever see themselves as slackers? Not in my experience. But, if you find yourself making excuses about your performance to your partners (I was sick, I had an important family obligation, I didn’t have enough time on that one, the client didn’t know what he wanted), if partners keep going over the same thing with you again and again, if you are not bringing in business of the sort the firm wants to be brought in and at the levels it wants to see, if you are not exercising partnership-caliber judgment or doing partnership-caliber work, well, then, sure, there could have just been a perfect storm working against you this year, or it could just be you.

You are going to have to make some changes whether you want to stick with your firm to try again to become a partner or whether you will shortly be exiting, no matter if you were nudged to the door or not. Could you raise the possibility of becoming counsel rather than a partner? Are you willing to make the changes identified to be considered for a partner again? If so, you will need to step up your game. Have you considered getting some professional coaching or attending some pertinent continuing legal education that will help you reach your goal? Do you need to change your approach to leadership and woo different sponsors and mentors? Do you need to look for a job, open a solo practice, or set up a partnership of your own with a peer?

Being passed over for a partner can mean that a dream of yours has been deferred for now. It can also be an eye-opening opportunity for you to make real change and to take greater control over your own career path. Everyone experiences career setbacks. It’s up to whether you handle this one well or not.