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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

July 12, 2016

I’ve been a rainmaker in small law firm for several years – and now a named partner is retiring. Is it reasonable for me to request to be a named partner? Does it really matter or am I being too shallow?

Julie Q. Brush

Many law firm partners love to see their name in lights…or more specifically, on Letterhead. It’s flattering, builds confidence and is a communication to the world that they possess a certain status. It can also serve as a powerful marketing tool for developing business. The reasons for one’s “name on the door” can vary and include the following:

  • Firm name includes its founders
  • Merger of two firms with a combination of the firm names
  • Negotiated designation by powerful incoming lateral partner
  • “Promotion” to keep valued partner from leaving the firm (as prompted by the threat or expressed desire to leave)
  • Aggressive partner wearing the others down until objective is reached
  • Promotion of productive/impactful partner as recognition for his/her contributions

The drive for partners to seek this designation can run the spectrum as well – from pure ego to a true belief that the accomplishment has been earned. Depending on which driver is at play, the consequences and impact on the firm and its lawyers can be vastly different. So the approach is critical.

Your question about vanity demonstrates that you are sensitive about the right motives before you pursue the issue further (or decide against it). This is a good instinct to have and a healthy assessment to make. In your circumstances, it is not vain to ask for consideration to be a named partner in your firm. You’ve been a productive and high contributing partner for many years. A productive partner in a small law firm has big impact so if you are well liked; it is likely that you are a highly valued member. In addition, one named partner is retiring. This evolution has provided a natural path for you to step up and assume responsibility and stature held by this former leader. So your desire to evolve with the firm is reasonable.

But does your name at the top of the page really matter?

It depends….on You. The answer is “Yes” if you view the elevation as an important and earned recognition of your contributions during your many years of service. “Yes” if you will feel unvalued, demoralized, unmotivated, resentful or angry if you are not promoted. “Yes” if you believe that being a named partner would bolster your business development success as well as your ability to help the firm succeed. But practically speaking, a name in lights is not required to be successful, powerful, valued or…happy. So take inventory on how important this event would be to you and how it would impact your overall happiness and well being at the firm. At that point you will know whether – and how much it will matter.

If you decide to raise the issue, be respectful and modest in your tone. Don’t go in with demands or entitlement, but rather a request to have a thoughtful conversation. And logically explain why you would like your name to be included, why you believe you have earned the recognition, and why it’s important to you. In addition, I recommend that you provide a few options to consider including: Adding your name to the existing names, removing the retired lawyer’s name and replacing it with your own, a “phase in and out” of names within a designated time period; and additional duties you’d like to assume to accompany the new designation.

Your desire to elevate your status and evolve with the firm is perfectly reasonable. But change isn’t easy…for anyone. Raising this issue would openly acknowledge that change is in the air which could increase the anxiety and fear level among your partners. And which could work against you. So be mindful of this and approach your conversation with care and sensitivity. By doing so, you will maximize your chances for a smooth transition to the big lights of Broadway.

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