You are a good associate, but not right to make partner; but you can learn

6 Jan 2016

A recent article in the Lawyer (found here) looked at the difficult conversation which arises when letting an associate know they will not make it to partner. 
The major problem is that rather than grasp the nettle firms avoid having the conversation.
If someone is well liked and works hard, there is often a ‘see how they do next year’ thought in a hope they suddenly become what the firm perceives it needs.
In reality, if they do not show the qualities needed to become a partner this year, then without some training or even being aware they have a problem, why would they suddenly fit the criteria next year.


There are a number of reasons why not every good associate will make it to partner.
  • Not everyone wants to be a partner.

It is no longer the be all and end of a legal career, someone can be a good Lawyer but not wish to do the things partners have to do to gain and sustain their status. They may not wish to be defined by billings, manage others, carry out business development and establish new clients, it is not everyones cup of tea.

  • Someone is only a grinder.

They will constantly do the work, but does not show or are unaware they need to show any additional business acumen to reach partner. They believe simply putting in the long hours is enough. This does not mean they are a bad lawyer, on the contrary they are probably a very good lawyer, they just don’t possess or display the extra acumen needed.

  • Weak relationships.

They cannot bring much extra to the table in terms of following and business case. Again this does not mean they are not a good lawyer, they just have not established and nurtured the personal connections yet.


Two common ‘solutions’ – continuously ignore the issue or promote them anyway.
  • Promote anyway.

It might be nice to promote someone to partner as a reward for their years of hard work at the firm. Clearly they will be a very good lawyer, otherwise they would not have been around for so long. However, if done once it can be done again and again, leading to a lot of ‘deadwood’ at partner level. These people will do the work however not the business development, bring in new or get the most out of existing clients.

  • They realise themselves there is no progression.

If the conversation is continuously ignored the associate will eventually realise there is no progression, look somewhere else and “out of the blue” they will leave.


Someone not quite being right is not the end of the world.

Our concern about the article is the thought that if someone is not ‘partner material’ no matter how talented a lawyer they are, they won’t (or shouldn’t) make it as a partner.
We think if someone has the ability to develop into a talented lawyer, they should have the ability to develop personally and professionally to gain the skills needed to become a good partner.
The better conversation to have would be, ‘you do not have the skills needed for partnership, but we will work with and invest in you to help develop them.’ Creating loyalty to the firm and giving back for the hard work they have put in over the years.
The skills needed to be a partner are commonly not inherent, they are developed. If someone can develop the skills needed to be a good, reliable lawyer, why can they not develop the additional skills needed to be a good partner.
The answer in most cases is that if you want to learn the skills required you can.
By clearly laying out what is needed/expected early on a firm will ensure associates understand what they need to achieve. If they do not reach these standards it will make the ‘you won’t make partner here’ talk easier.
However, once what is needed/expected is laid out to an associate, investment into personal and professional development can then help them achieve it. If someone is hardworking and dedicated enough to become a talented lawyer and fully understands what is needed, they can develop the necessary traits required of a partner.