Complete Communicator: Strategies to prepare for your partnership interview
By Jay Sullivan
Every firm operates on its own annual timetable regarding when and how they promote attorneys into the partner ranks. All, however, have a “partner candidate process” that involves candidates sitting down for interviews with the firm’s management committee. Some firms also require a written statement by the candidate about why she or he would be a valuable addition to the firm’s ownership team. Since most firms promote people into partnership at the start of the calendar year, many are gearing up now for those discussions. While there is no one right way to “sell” your candidacy to your firm, there are some guiding principles that might be helpful to keep in mind.
Sell yourself as an owner, not as an attorney.
If you’re being considered for partner, the firm already recognizes the quality legal work you have been performing. You don’t need to talk about all the big deals you’ve helped lead, or the big cases in which you have been involved. You’re not interviewing to be a lawyer. You’re interviewing to be a business owner. Go into the interview ready to talk strategy.
If you are being considered for partner, you likely have a decade of experience working on client matters. What recent trends have you seen in the law, in clients’ approach to dealing with legal issues, in your relationship with your clients? If you focus on a specific industry, what trends in that industry will impact the need for the types of legal services your practice group provides?
Chances are, you have very little insight at this point into your firm’s decision-making processes regarding hiring and promotion, industry focus, marketing initiatives, compensation, or anything else. I’m not suggesting you go into the interview with a “here’s-how-I-would-run-things” attitude. Rather, consider leveraging your experience to share a few developments. What have you noticed or thought about regarding how the practice group could grow, adapt and prepare to respond to the trends you have observed?
Sharing trends you have noticed positions you as someone who is looking at the firm and your practice over the long haul. That’s a value-add to the partners. Your legal acumen is table stakes. Your insights regarding the business of the law are what suggests you are partner material. Even if the partners interviewing you disagree with your conclusion, they’ll recognize that you have put time and energy into thinking about these issues, which is impressive. They’ll also know that once the firm shares more intel with you on these topics, you’ll come up with better suggestions.
Share your war stories as data leading to insights rather than as proof of ability.
The fact that you led the deal team on the Alpha-Beta merger is impressive and you need to share it. But don’t tell the story as an accomplishment. Instead, share what you learned as a result of running the deal and how the insight you gleaned from that experience will be applicable in future instances. I’m not suggesting you downplay your accomplishments; you should be proud of what you’ve achieved. I’m suggesting that you and your achievements are more impressive and more helpful to the firm because of what you learned from them.
Pick your three most impressive work-related achievements. What did you learn from each experience? How did that lesson help you manage the next client engagement even more effectively? What are the learning points you can share with the firm as a result?
When you tell the story, keep it short. Remember that the point of the story is to highlight the learning moment. Keep other details to a minimum, just enough to make the story impactful.
“Last year, I helped lead the Acme deal. It was a $500 million acquisition, one of the biggest at the firm that year, and involved a team of, at times, up to eight associates. It was apparent to me that we did a great job staffing the deal economically for the client. I think we could have done a better job on the project management side. It was great to help the mid-level associates take on new roles, but some had a pretty steep learning curve that we could have handled better. I realized we would do better on this type of deal if we had provided training at the Mid-Level Associate Retreat specifically around managing a deal. When I ran the Gamma/Delta merger this year, I scheduled a strategy session with the associate team early in the process to evaluate the real level of experience of the associates so I knew where I would have to invest more time in developing people.”
This simple story takes less than a minute to share. It highlights the deal you worked on, what you learned from that experience, how you can help the firm build its bench strength, and how the firm can operate more efficiently. Instead of the story being about your legal work, it’s about you as a business leader, thinking strategically even while under the extreme pressure of closing a major deal. You come across as thoughtful, reflective, analytical, and focused on the bigger picture – all important qualities for a business owner to possess. Have three of these stories ready for your interview, each highlighting different talents you would bring to the table as a partner.
This approach remains true regardless of whether your practice area brings in the deals, or supports the deals brought in by others. You have a lot of experience regardless of your role developing business. Be ready to share it.
Ask the right questions.
Unless you have experience owning a business outside of your role as an attorney, running a business is unfamiliar territory for you. The list of things you don’t know is endless. Nevertheless, you’re also smart or you wouldn’t be in the running for partnership. You’ve probably often thought to yourself, “Why does the firm do X that way?” or “How do we determine when we follow the trend we see other firms setting and when we decide to chart our own course?” Those are legitimate questions to ask in the interview. Asking thoughtful questions around firm strategy makes you look like you are invested in the success of the business and interested in the firm’s long-term growth. Partnerships function well when they are full of individuals who challenge ideas respectfully, engage in productive debate, and ask better questions.
In short, keep in mind the job you’re interviewing for and what talents and approach the firm needs from future leaders. Share your accomplishments and insights from that perspective.
Jay Sullivan is a former practicing attorney and the former managing partner at Exec/Comm, LLC, a communications consulting firm. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is the author of “Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work & Beyond,” and “The New Nimble: Leading in the Age of Change.”