From Novice to Partner: How Law Firms Can Guide Attorney Career Growth
By Fernando Torrontegui
February 23, 2023 | 6-minute read
Business of Law Attorney Talent Recruitment, Compensation, Professional Development and Retention Content Type Article
To become a successful professional with growth potential in a law firm, a new lawyer must possess a defined set of competencies. For those just starting in law, there are three key elements to these competencies: knowledge, skill and attitude. Through developing these competencies, one can determine whether a young legal professional will excel in their career and have the drive to eventually reach the partner track.
Given their limited experience, new attorneys must demonstrate their legal and technical knowledge. Law firms should consider during the hiring process whether the attorney’s knowledge level matches its standards. They can do this by asking for a university transcript that proves certain courses were taken, and asking the lawyer to demonstrate their knowledge of specific area(s) of law via a case study, in which those overseeing the hiring process can observe how the attorney applies themselves. Additionally, firms can consider evaluating a lawyer during an established probationary period.
Attorneys must also be willing and able to continuously learn and acquire new knowledge through work and professional development opportunities.
Similar to knowledge, skill can also be developed over time, allowing the attorney to become more agile. Lawyers must develop many skills, including those related to personal effectiveness, relationship management, entrepreneurship, emotional intelligence, communication and negotiation techniques, and clear and effective speech.
An attorney’s attitude can greatly impact their professional future, as well as the rest of the client team, firm and client relationship. Attitudes can be positive, neutral or negative — so it’s critical to be aware of how their attitude is perceived. If an attorney’s attitude is not right, their professional future may be compromised over time.
Bringing it All Together in a Career Plan
So why are these three key elements important to being a successful lawyer? When a novice lawyer joins a law firm, there is an opportunity to help them develop (or expand upon) a career plan. A company’s career plan typically explains the knowledge, skills and attitude that its employees must have to achieve long-term success.
A career plan provides clarity regarding opportunities (and the job levels within these opportunities) that lawyers can work toward and achieve in the firm. Additionally, a career plan allows for transparency in relation to the different remuneration levels and the experience required for automatic promotion between the job levels. It also provides insight into the management’s decision-making process for promotions. Career plans can enable a firm to establish competency development paths that attorneys can follow to reach the highest job level: partnership.
Designing a Career Plan Step by Step
For law firms looking to design a career plan, consider the following steps:
Step 1: Determine how to align the objectives of the career plan with the organizational objectives defined in the firm’s strategic plan, as well as with the objectives of other lawyers.
Step 2: Determine the categories and job levels that will make up each step of the career plan.
Step 3: Identify the roles and responsibilities of each job in each step of the plan.
Step 4: Establish the transversal competencies, common to the whole team of professionals, as well as specific competencies directly related to the functions and responsibilities defined in the previous step.
Step 5: Establish the academic and technical requirements required of each lawyer, as well as requirements related to experience and expertise.
Step 6: Integrate the information accumulated in the previous five steps into a single document: the career plan.
To lead a legal practice, be a leader in the market, and take on commercial tasks and close relationships with clients, a partner must have broad knowledge, a long trajectory in their area(s) of expertise, a solid academic background and a vocation for client service.
A partner of the highest level must rely on entrepreneurial competence, or the ability to transform one or several areas of the firm from low to high productivity and performance. Being able to seek change, respond when it is presented and take advantage of it as an opportunity, as well as guide their actions and that of others, is imperitive.1
While a partner has the same legal duties as other lawyers at the firm, they also need a developmental mindset to help the firm continue on an upward trajectory. The competency in this case is an understanding of the firm’s strategic vision.
A partner that has the firm’s strategic vision top of mind is able to anticipate and understand changes in the legal environment, as well as those in which clients interact, and can establish the firm’s impact in the short, medium and long term. With this mindset, a partner can optimize the strengths, act on weaknesses and seize opportunities in context.1
To achieve the above, a partner must continue to build upon the three key components for each competency and have excellent fundamental skills like planning and organization. A partner must also be able to develop and implement management skills and have a drive for results, with emphasis on strategic actions around client, market and brand orientation. Relationships are key at this level, too, along with the ability to manage teams and professionals from a multitude of disciplines.
For new lawyers with aspirations to one day become a partner, it is imperative to close the competencies gap. To do this, one must have a career plan rooted in competency development. As a lawyer progresses in their field, it’s expected they have continued to acquire knowledge, learn the skills to apply this knowledge and, most importantly, have done this with the right attitude.
On the flip side, law firms must understand their own needs so they can hire novice attorneys and nurture them in their career journey accordingly. Some firms, far from defining competencies, establish conditions such as the time it takes a lawyer to move through its structure and acquire fee ranges at a certain level. This becomes transactional, rather than a learning experience, which can negatively impact a firm’s attorneys.
All the above implies that firms, if they have not already done so, must have a talent management department that provides adequate processes and procedures for the identification, recruitment, training and retention of professionals that will support the firm's reputation, ensure its credibility and enable its sustainability as an organization.
Without a solid academic, technical and competency base, a purposeful professional career cannot be built, putting the sustainability of the professional and the firm at risk. Lawyers can and should be considered stakeholders of their firms2 and the management system established must be oriented toward maximum cooperation, so the objectives are met and lawyers at all levels feel supported.
- Alles M. Codesarrollo. 2009
- Freeman RE, Harrison, JS and Zyglidopoulos S. Stakeholder Theory. Cambridge Elements 2018
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