The Passing Comment That I Pass Along – Don’t Assume People Know What You Want

I am often asked what is the best career advice I received as a young attorney. After nearly 30 years of practice, there is certainly plenty for me to choose from. But one particular conversation always comes to mind, because the advice was so straightforward and implementable but had not occurred to me.

At the time, I was a senior associate in a large firm, gunning (in my own mind) to make partner. During a watercooler conversation with a partner in another department, the topic of partnership track came up. With sincere curiosity he asked me if I was interested in being a partner in the firm. I was a bit taken aback – of course I wanted to be a partner, why else would I be doing this? His response flipped a light switch for me. He remarked that I should let people know that – and not just the partners in my small practice group – because plenty of associates do not, in fact, have that goal. So if I wanted to be on the firm’s radar screen for promotion, I needed to speak up. Of course, he was right. And I realized that despite my senior associate status, I had never directly stated my ambitions, had asked far too few questions, and instead was assuming “the partners” knew what I wanted and would tell me when it was going to happen.

Law firm partnership is typically something you need to push for if you want it, especially now that the business case for adding new partners can be so demanding. My advice to associates who aspire to be partners is to take that offhand advice I was given and speak up. Grab the reins of your career, communicate your ambitions, seek guidance as to how to achieve them, and solicit regular and candid feedback regarding your progress. And if you do not want to be a partner, have the confidence to communicate those career aspirations as well. Perhaps your goal is to go in-house, or work for the government. Start with a trusted mentor and collaborate on how to communicate and achieve those goals. No one is in a better position to help you get where you want to go professionally than your current colleagues, even if your ultimate goal is not to stay at your current law firm for the entirety of your career.

On the flip side, many law firms need to do a far better job of engaging in an open and ongoing dialogue with associates regarding their desire for and likelihood of promotion. Too many partners avoid the partnership track conversation for as long as they can, for reasons too varied to discuss here. And too many associates are afraid to ask where they stand vis-a-vis partnership for fear of the answer, or to share their non-partnership goals for fear of being side-lined. The reality is that not every associate can, or wants to, make partner, so it would behoove both the firm and the associate to work together to make sure that interests and expectations align. This requires some amount of transparency and trust on both sides, but I believe is far more likely to lead to a win-win situation than delaying or ducking the conversation ever will.

As is true for most things in life, if you do not communicate what you want, you are unlikely to get it. And that applies equally to associates driving their own career and to law firms developing their partnership and loyal alumni pipelines.