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.

Best practices: Strong Enough

If we were to analyze the components that make an excellent litigator, Sarah Armstrong would be the ideal model. This is someone whose major promotions — most recently, equity partner at Canada’s third-largest firm — happened during and right after maternity leaves. She’s Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP’s vice-chair of litigation, and one of the firm’s most dedicated mentors. “I suppose my edge is that I work hard and I’m focused.”

“Sarah is so modest,” says Laura Cooper, a partner who’s observed Armstrong’s ascent since she arrived as a summer student in 2001. “She’s the complete package. She’s smart, strategic, assiduous and really cares about the client. But she’s also a team player and dedicated to volunteer work.”

Trace back Armstrong’s communityminded generosity to growing up in the tiny town of Haileybury, north of North Bay. But her determination can probably be attributed to her youth spent standing up to her three brothers and competing as an ice skater. She studied political science at McMaster University and interned at a law firm near home to see if she liked the profession. She did, and applied to law school at the University of Toronto.

Armstrong started in the litigation department at Faskens as a first-year associate and right away found mentors who pushed her. “I was quite junior when, an hour before an arbitration hearing, the senior lawyer told me that I would be examining an important witness that day,” she recalls. Her champions kept offering her opportunities that built up her confidence and made her hungry for more.

When there’s no challenge afoot, she finds it. In 2006, she took a leave of absence to join her husband Jeff Murray in New York City when his firm, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, seconded him there. But when she could have been skating at Rockefeller Center and hanging out at museums, she instead took on two major cases, working remotely from NYC and flying back to Ontario for hearings.

Armstrong has tackled commercial and contractual disputes, class actions, arbitrations and administrative cases. She acted as lead counsel for a successful claimant in a commercial arbitration over a post-purchase price adjustment. She was also co-counsel in a lengthy wrongful dismissal claim, and co-counsel in a multimillion-dollar commercial dispute between large international corporations.

Meanwhile, Armstrong twice took the top spot in the firm’s annual mentoring awards, based on the number of hours lawyers dedicate to coaching junior staff. She’s one of two partners responsible for the internal legal education program for litigation associates and the business development training program for all associates. She says she’s just doing what senior partners did for her years ago, making herself an “accessible person.”

That accessibility extends to her work with clients, particularly her decade-long pro bono relationship with the Child Advocacy Project. Through the organization, she represented a grade 9 student undergoing kidney dialysis who had been denied funding to be taught in-hospital while remaining enrolled at his school. She also defended a 15-year-old with severe autism who had been excluded from school for over six months.

While litigating, mentoring and volunteering seem to come easily to Armstrong, it’s adding parenthood to the mix that’s proven to be her greatest challenge: she says she juggles work and life with sons Wilson, 4, and Andrew, 10 months, “with great difficulty.” It’s an honest answer, and that kind of honesty is an essential component of a truly great model. 

Faskens litigator Sarah Armstrong corporate securities

The lowdown
Year of call:
Current position: Partner, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP
Favourite legal character: Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife
If I weren’t a lawyer, I’d be: A doctor
Pet peeve: Incomplete Lego sets
Greatest extravagance: A personal trainer
Most treasured possession: My Knebli ice skates 

Photography by Stacey Croucher