Cover Story: Want to make partner? Good. Luck.

Making partner is like a shot of adrenaline. The pressure to land clients raises the stakes, and a share of the firm’s profits offers a chance at a significant pay bump. Getting there, however, has never been harder. Ambitious associates are staring down a sluggish economy. And for racialized lawyers or those at smaller firms, it can be even trickier. But some lawyers have made it, despite the odds. Below are three in-depth playbooks for making partner, based on the success stories of those who’ve ascended the ranks in the modern legal profession.

  1. How to make partner in weak market
  2. How to make partner as a racialzied lawyer
  3. How to make partner at a small firm


This story is from our Spring 2016 issue.

Cover Story: How to make partner in a weak market

1. Sell yourself

“It’s not enough to do good work,” says Sarah Armstrong, who became an equity partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in 2013, 10 years into her career — a breakneck ascent, considering she took two maternity leaves in that time. “You need people to know you do good work.”

Such advice has particular relevance for associates looking to advance at a big firm. After all, when partners have a big file, they bring top associates into the fold — or, more accurately, associates they think are the best. And getting on those files leads to billable hours and contact with clients, two prerequisites for partnership.

Luckily, self-promotion doesn’t have to be shameless. “I would speak at firm-wide events to market myself to the partners,” says Armstrong. “I once presented on arbitration clauses to corporate partners.” Sure enough, a partner asked her to draft one, which led to more work down the line. “It only happens when you put yourself out there.”

2. Quit the cocktail parties

Jill Daley didn’t just make partner quickly — she made partner early. In 2014, as a sixth-year lawyer, Daley became a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, one year before associates are supposed to become eligible for partnership. And yet, Daley, a leading pharmaceutical lawyer, never goes to networking events.

“I meet with clients all the time. But I take them to lunch and sit in their boardrooms.”— Jill Daley, Norton Rose Fulbright LLP

This shouldn’t be a surprise. A recent study on rainmaking, published by the U.S. consultancy firm Lawyer Metrics, found that most bona fide rainmakers don’t fish for clients at cocktail parties. In fact, many rainmakers are introverts who dislike attending them. “It surprises me how often people tell lawyers to go to parties,” says Monique Drake, who co-authored the study. “That’s not how most lawyers get clients.”

Meanwhile, rainmaking is more important than ever. “Ten years ago, there was so much work,” says Armstrong. “If associates survived long enough, they would make partner. That’s not really the case anymore.” In today’s weak economy and increasingly competitive market, they can only make partner if they have a knack for getting clients.

So, if not at cocktail parties, where do clients come from? “I don’t want to sound patronizing,” says Daley, “but most new business comes from doing good work for existing clients.” This helps in two ways. One, clients often move companies, where they hire the lawyer they liked the best. Two, clients send referrals to their favourite associates. Indeed, this is how Daley built a client roster.

But what, then, do rainmakers do to impress clients?

To start, they often learn the minutiae of each client’s world, says Drake. “They know what’s important to each client’s business and the internal politics each client faces.” And they learn this, simply, by listening. “Let’s say a rainmaker has to file a motion.

So she calls the client, but the client is upset about something else. Most lawyers try to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand. The rainmaker, though, will find out what’s going on.”

Deep client knowledge, in turn, tends to make lawyers more comfortable with risk — another hallmark of rainmakers. “Lawyers sometimes say to clients, ‘On one hand, we could file this motion, but we only have a 60 percent chance of winning. So what do you want to do?’” explains Drake. But rainmakers don’t waffle: they know how much risk a client can tolerate.

"Clients won’t come back to you if, whenever they have a problem, they feel like they’ve inconvenienced you."— Anthony Spadaro, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP

“Clients won’t come back to you if, whenever they have a problem, they feel like they’ve inconvenienced you.”— Anthony Spadaro, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP

“By couching advice in all sorts of back and forth, you’re effectively leaving it to the client to decide,” says Jason Mangano, who made equity partner at Blaney McMurtry LLP last year, as a ninth-year lawyer, about as fast as was possible. “But remember: clients come to you for recommendations and those recommendations need to be clear.” That’s not to say junior lawyers should launch headlong into categorical advice. “This is for senior associates,” says Drake, “who’ve been plugged into a client’s world for years.”

Does this mean cocktail parties are a waste of time? Not necessarily. Having personal relationships with clients is important. So if a client will be at an event, it might make sense to attend. Mangano surely thinks so. “Going to parties over the years has really paid off,” he says. But Daley’s clients never go to networking events. Associates eyeing partnership, then, should look for ways to spend time with clients — at parties, or somewhere else entirely. “I meet with clients all the time,” says Daley. “But I take them to lunch and sit in their boardrooms. I visit them where they are.”

3. Stay calm

Bay Street lawyers face an unending stream of shitstorms: the deadlines are intense and clients often call with Friday-afternoon emergencies. But top associates always keep their cool.

“Clients won’t come back to you if, whenever they have a problem, they feel like they’ve inconvenienced you,” says Anthony Spadaro, a 2009-call at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, who made non-equity partner in 2014, lockstep with the firm’s partnership track. “You have to roll with the punches.”

This story is part our series on making partner, from our Spring 2016 issue.

Cover Story: How to make partner at a small firm

1. Pass the lunchtime test

Making partner at McLeish Orlando LLP takes stellar legal work, rainmaking savvy and something less tangible. “I’ve got to want to have lunch with that person, only because I enjoy their company,” says John McLeish, co-founder of the 14-lawyer personal injury firm, which has seven partners. “We call it the lunchtime test.”

"We all make an effort to know each other on a personal level."— Rikin Morzaria, McLeish Orlando LLP

“We all make an effort to know each other on a personal level.”— Rikin Morzaria, McLeish Orlando LLP

And associates take the test nearly every day. “Unless I’m at a discovery or a mediation, I almost always have lunch with the rest of the firm,” says Rikin Morzaria, who made partner at McLeish Orlando in 2011, as a seventh-year lawyer. He says he chats about his personal life as often as he does about work. For Morzaria, that means providing updates on his two young children, while the hockey players on staff recount their latest on-ice triumphs. “We often have different interests outside of work,” says Morzaria. “But we all make an effort to know each other on a personal level.”

At any small firm, notes McLeish, everyone has to gel. “At a large firm, some lawyers might not even know each other’s names. But there’s no hiding at a small firm.” And McLeish says that’s a good thing: no one should want to hide. “I love all my partners and I love coming to the office. If I don’t like the lawyers, it’s not going to work for them and it’s not going to work for me.”

2. Master the small-firm formula

One afternoon in October of 2014, Jacquelyn Stevens marched nervously into a boardroom at Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers. At the table sat the five partners of the 14-lawyer environmental boutique. Stevens, a tenth-year associate, was about to argue that she, too, should be a partner at the firm. It was the biggest moment of her career.

Being a partner is a big responsibility. We take it seriously.— Donna Shier, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers

Being a partner is a big responsibility. We take it seriously.— Donna Shier, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers

Like many small firms, Willms & Shier doesn’t have a partnership track. When associates want to take the leap, they are encouraged to make the first move and pitch themselves to the partners. If the partners like what they hear, associates become “partners-in- training” — kickstarting a trial period of at least one year, throughout which they attend all partnership meetings and see all the financial information for the first time. Only if the trial period goes well can they join the partnership, and have an equity stake in the firm. The vetting process is long. And that first meeting is no joke.

“It’s one of those times when they come in and straighten their ties,” says Donna Shier, who co-founded the firm 37 years ago. “This firm is how we support our families and our staff. Being a partner is a big responsibility. We take it seriously.”

Indeed, it’s a rare occasion when the firm’s relaxed tenor dissipates. Stevens felt the pressure. “It was pretty stressful,” she recalls. “Because I knew they might say no.”

But Stevens had prepared a detailed presentation that touted what she could bring to the business — and her pitch sheds light on what it takes to make partner at a small firm. For one thing, Stevens raised her reputation as a hyper-specialist. Most small shops, after all, brand themselves as the leading lawyers in a narrow field of law. On this point, Stevens introduced ample evidence in her favour: she was a certified specialist in environmental law and a superstar in a range of environmental areas, from mining to renewable energy.

He shook my hand, gave me a hug and said, ‘You’re in.’— Jacquelyn Stevens, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers

He shook my hand, gave me a hug and said, ‘You’re in.’— Jacquelyn Stevens, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers

She also had a strong reputation in the dry-cleaning law world, where she’s a go-to lawyer for both industrial cleaners and property owners who have sued such cleaners for damaging their land. At the office, colleagues called her “the dry-cleaning queen.”

Next, Stevens had to prove she could bring in new clients, a touchstone for partnership at all firms. But rainmaking at small firms is a unique challenge. “Most small firms don’t have institutional clients that feed it all of its work,” says Stevens. “Most of my work comes from one-off clients.” Business development, in other words, is a constant grind. Which is why Stevens keeps in touch with potential clients year-round. For instance, she reaches out to them and says, “I hope you don’t have any problems, but if you do, remember to give me a call.” And, as she told the partners, that tactic has borne fruit. “It’s taken six years, but I finally feel like I’ve gained the trust of certain clients, and I’m getting files.”

At the end of her presentation, Stevens ambled back to her office, leaving the partners to confer. Five minutes passed. She heard a knock at the door. “It was the managing partner, Marc McAree,” she recalls. “He shook my hand, gave me a hug and said, ‘You’re in.’”

Stevens went on to spend all of 2015 as a partner-in-training. Then, this January, she broke out of that cocoon, and emerged as a full-fledged equity partner. “It’s a big responsibility,” she says. “But you know what? I’m ready for this.”

This story is part of our series on making partner, from our Spring 2016 issue.

Cover Story: How to make partner as a racialized lawyer

1. Confront the pressure to “fit in”

Ritu Bhasin is used to having difficult conversations. As one of Toronto’s top diversity consultants, and a former lawyer, she spends a lot of time with racialized lawyers in the city, offering advice on how to advance — and how to make partner. That means helping them navigate a profession ruled by, as she puts it, “white, straight, able-bodied men from Christian backgrounds.” And it can get uncomfortable. “As it stands now, legal culture rewards conformity,” says Bhasin, who left Stikeman Elliott LLP five years ago, where she had spent seven years as the firm’s director of legal talent. “It’s going to take a long time for that culture to shift, so in the meantime, it requires some amount of strategic adaptation.”

Race and conformity — these are tricky subjects. But Bhasin, a first-generation Canadian whose South Asian parents immigrated to Canada 45 years ago, refuses to tiptoe around them. The reality is too stark. Though racialized people make up 23 percent of Ontario’s population, they account for just 17 percent of lawyers and 6.6 percent of partners.

"I know law firms say their lawyers can look diverse, but they still expect them to ‘fit in.’" — Ritu Bhasin, ‎Bhasin Consulting Inc.

“I know law firms say their lawyers can look diverse, but they still expect them to ‘fit in.’” — Ritu Bhasin, ‎Bhasin Consulting Inc.

Why can’t they get ahead? Perhaps the biggest reason is what social scientists call likeness bias. “We are hardwired to like people who are similar to us,” explains Bhasin. And so, when senior white partners decide which associates to mentor and which to assign major files (steering them closer to partnership) they often choose white associates who ‘fit in’ to mainstream legal culture.

This is more than a theory. A recent report from the Law Society of Upper Canada found that some racialized lawyers can feel alienated at work — for many, it’s because they don’t play golf or hockey, go cottaging or drink alcohol. And this has severe consequences: 26 percent of racialized lawyers said their inability to take part in social activities held them back. Only 12 percent of white lawyers made such a claim. “I know law firms say their lawyers can look diverse, but they still expect them to ‘fit in,’” says Bhasin. “And ‘fit in’ is code for: don’t act Asian, or black or Hispanic.”

"Never change who you are. I’m only talking about broadening your interests."— Brendan Wong, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

“Never change who you are. I’m only talking about broadening your interests.”— Brendan Wong, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

So what should racialized lawyers do? Bhasin says that, in light of this unfair reality, they need to take some interest in mainstream activities. Brendan Wong, a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, who is of Chinese descent, agrees. “If you’re going to a Leafs game with a client, read some headlines in the sports section,” he suggests. “If you know someone likes dogs, look something up about dogs. But never change your values. Never change who you are. I’m only talking about broadening your interests.” For his part, Wong got lucky: he grew up in Maple Ridge, a small town just outside Vancouver, where hockey and golf were popular. “I’ve had an advantage in my career, in that I grew up in the cultural norm that now dominates Bay Street.”

But isn’t this totally unfair? After all, white partners get to live their culture large. Why should racialized lawyers have to knuckle under to the forces of conformity?

Bhasin hears those questions all the time. And she agrees: to discriminate against associates from diverse backgrounds is flat-out wrong. “It is fair for a racialized lawyer to say, ‘I don’t want to conform by learning to play golf or to ski or to drink.’ And I’m the first to say, ‘Don’t do those things, then.’ However, if you’re not going to do those things, and you do nothing, then given current legal culture, you’re not going to get ahead.”

At the same time, Bhasin is not blaming racialized lawyers who fail to make partner for their inability to conform. The onus, she says, is on law firms to change. “This is a law-firm management problem.” And one day, Bhasin hopes she won’t have to give this advice. “I am hell-bent on getting legal culture to change,” she says. “Along the way, though, we need to equip diverse lawyers with tools for success.”

2. Play the diversity card

Discrimination is real. But in recent years, racial diversity has become an asset: some corporations now actively seek out racialized lawyers on their external legal teams. And lawyers can take advantage of this trend, says Michelle Henry, a partner at BLG who is black. “First, look for companies that care about diversity,” she says. A good place to start is the website for the group Legal Leaders for Diversity, whose members include nearly 100 businesses — such as Deloitte, Capital One and Sobeys — that want to hire diverse legal talent. The next step for racialized lawyers, says Henry, is to find out if any of these businesses are clients of their firm. “Try to connect with the partner responsible for that client and ask them for lunch.” The goal, then, is to get on that client’s legal team and, over the years, become a go-to contact.

Racialized lawyers can also tap into communities that Bay Street has typically ignored. “If you are an East Asian lawyer looking for clients, then look for an Asian business association,” says Wong, who’s a member of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers. “You have the cultural knowledge to make connections, so why wouldn’t you do that? Sell what you got.”

This story is part of our series on making partner, from our Spring 2016 issue.

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Photo of Ryerson Univeristy: William Mewes