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BigLaw: How to Dodge the "Of Counsel" Bullet (and Make Partner)

By Marin Feldman | Monday, October 25, 2010


Originally published on October 25, 2010 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

Two years ago, I left my job as a biglaw associate the same day an of counsel who sat on my floor also departed. At our joint going away party (which featured a small cake for me and a larger one for him, naturally), we chatted briefly about why we were leaving. He said he was lateraling to another large law firm in the city to try to make partner. I said I was leaving to pursue writing. Only one of us made it (hint — you're reading my BigLaw column).

It's not that this guy wasn't great at his job. To the contrary, he was a very serious, detail-oriented lawyer who routinely worked long hours even though he had young kids and a wife. And though I personally liked him very much, he could be aloof with clients, and had an awkward phone demeanor — and, occasionally, bad breath. There was good reason he was of counsel and not partner at my old firm. Sadly, he lacked self-awareness if he thought that lateraling would solve the problem.

Biglaw partners are a very specific breed. If you're an associate with great technical skills but no "it" factor, you're doomed to become of counsel, or worse — be asked to leave. Fortunately, you can take steps to dodge the of counsel bullet and gain the "it" factor. Below you'll learn how to fake it 'til you make it.

1. Cultivate Your Partner Personality

I recently met a senior associate at a firm who expects to make partner this year because he's meticulous and a hard worker. However, despite having never seen any of his work, I can guarantee that he'll make of counsel. Why?

He comes across as desperate, exhausted, and uptight. He's also extremely overweight and disheveled. Firms want partners who are socially savvy, self-aware, and confident. They look for well-dressed, well-kempt people who can get the job done for clients and take them to a dinner after the deal closes (case settles).

If life is a schoolyard, partners (aside from tax partners) are the cool kids with decent grades who play sports. Counsel are the straight-A nerds in marching band. If you're a natural-born nerd, you need to fight your inner bookworm and act the part of partner. That may mean polishing your small talk skills, revamping your wardrobe, and/or losing weight. If you're unsure how you come across, consider hiring an image consultant for brutally honest feedback.

2. Get An Important Client To Back You

Once you've finessed your partner personality, it's time to start buttering up your firm's key clients. If you work closely with a particular client and become their go-to lawyer, the client may develop allegiance to you as an individual. You can leverage this loyalty by having the client praise you to your firm's partners or even go to bat for your directly.

Nothing will motivate a firm to make someone partner more than if a client threatens to take its business elsewhere — especially if it's a major blue chip client. Giving you a small equity stake in the firm is a lot cheaper than losing millions of dollars of business.

3. Bring in Business. Lots of It.

Future partners are shameless salespeople who win new clients based on the strength of their personalities. A mid-level associate friend of mine frequents an Irish pub where bankers hang out and has brought in millions of dollars to his firm simply by buying people drinks, schmoozing with them, and handing out his business card.

By contrast, future of counsel hide in their office and work on the matters assigned to them. They find networking oily and uncomfortable and think they prove themselves on the strength of their work. Law firms are businesses like any other, so if you want to make it to upper management, you have to prove your business savvy.

4. Build Your Reputation in the Firm

If you've ever looked at your firm's new partner and of counsel announcements, odds are you recognize the names of all the associates who made partner and few, if any, of the associates promoted to of counsel. That's because associates who eventually become partner wage public relations campaigns and work hard to raise their profiles within the firm. They demonstrate their commitment by sitting on firm committees, spearheading charity events, and taking on highly visible pro bono projects. They build reputations as tough but fair project managers and make it a point to work with as many partners as possible to ensure widespread buy-in.

If you think extracurriculars don't count and that the only variables that matter are your billable hours and work product, you're setting yourself up for counsel and a six- rather than a seven-figure salary. No associate was ever plucked from obscurity and made partner.

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Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management
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