Should You Promote that Associate to Partner?

Reasons to Reject Candidates Even If They Do Good Work

Should You Promote that Associate to Partner?
PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images.

Before switching up the mix at any small law firm by promoting a hardworking associate to partner, firm leadership should consider not just the qualifications, work record, and future prospects of the candidate, but also the impact that such a decision will have on the partnership itself. Bringing someone into the fold in a small setting could possibly be career-changing and life-changing decisions for everyone involved.

Make a bad choice and you could be setting yourself up for months and even years full of repercussions. As we know, small law firms dissolve all the time. Do you really want to make a poor choice and find yourself on a trajectory featuring revolving mastheads? Here are some points to ponder when contemplating an expansion of a small firm’s partnership.

Associate Performance

Of course, every law firm wants lawyers who work hard and well, but the inquiry should be broader than a mere assessment of wins. Does the associate bring in business? Does the associate’s practice area mesh well with the firm’s current focus and is it likely to be a viable practice area in the future? How does the associate handle mistakes that he has made? Does he own them and remedy the problem, or is there a reticence to acknowledge the failure and an effort to shift blame? How does the associate treat others, both within the firm and outside it?

There can always be a role in any organization for different personality types. A firm full of appeasing peacemakers might not perform as well as one with a more vibrant mix. If you are promoting a bulldog, though, know it, appreciate it, and figure out how that personality will be managed once it has voting power.

Try to anticipate, too, how partnership status may change the associate in ways both better and worse.

Impacts on the Partnership

The direction of the firm may well be affected by the addition of another partner. How is the associate likely to advance the interests of the firm once she is elevated to partnership status? What is the financial picture and how are partners compensated? Will dividing up the profits into even more pieces work well for the firm? How will law firm management chores be apportioned with the addition of a new partner? In contemplating these subjects, consider, too, the firm’s partnership agreement. Matters such as firm management and voting may be addressed there, either generally or in detail. You will want to consider the details of your firm’s partnership agreement with respect to the candidate, in particular with respect to voting rights.

Impacts on You

Anyone voting an associate into partnership should also consider the personal implications of such an act. By adding one more to the partnership fold, are you likely to be on the winning end of future votes? Will the firm be more likely to move into the direction that you want it to, or will you be on the losing end of firm votes more often?

Are you gaining an ally? You need to determine how firm dynamics will be affected by the change in partnership ranks and assess whether that shift will be a favorable one for all concerned as well as for yourself.

Implications of Inaction

For very small firms, failure to promote can also have a significant effect. Is the associate likely to leave if not promoted to partner and, if so, who will she be taking with her? How much time and effort will the firm need to dedicate to finding and training a replacement who would perform at the same level? Is it possible that the best alternative for a less-than-perfect candidate is actually promotion?