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The uncertain road to equity

In an era where the partnership track is more epic journey than career path, how can those for whom equity partnership is still the Holy Grail navigate a steady course to the top? Definitive Consulting’s Craig Hoyland details the questions equity hopefuls must ask themselves

In my experience, the biggest issue for anyone focused on making equity is the chronic lack of clarity from employers about what it takes to get there.

Not a week goes by without a salaried partner contacting me after being passed over for equity status, without explanation. In that kind of scenario, it is all too easy for that partner to conclude that they are simply not valued, that their practice area is not an investment priority, or that the firm simply does not want to dilute its PEP.

Naturally, many of these partners conclude that their only option is to move on – and in some, but not all cases, this is inarguably true.

That is a big issue for firms and one that can only be effectively solved by putting in place a framework of metrics and measures that can shed a little light on the journey to equity.

But for those embarking on the journey, which may last ten years plus these days, there is no time to wait. So, what can associates and junior partners aiming for equity do to navigate a way to the top?

Have a plan

One thing is for sure. This is not the kind of journey that anyone should embark on without a map. In this context, a map is a clear plan. It is no longer enough to work hard, get results, and wait your turn. Making equity these days requires a strategic career plan that is based on a clear understanding of your own talents and ambitions, and the landscape in which you operate.

In simple terms, making a plan boils down to asking yourself a series of searching questions:

1. Why do I want to make equity?

It might seem an easy question, but I am constantly amazed at the number of people who cannot answer it. Is it about status, influence, money, or something else?

For instance, if the motivation is purely money, then a lateral move to salaried partner in another firm can see salaries more than double. Similarly, if the motivation is influence then the firm you work at and its remuneration model must be considered.

2. How are my numbers?

It goes without saying that the step up to equity partner is contingent in no small part on billings and, therefore your contribution to the PEP.

So, take a close look at your numbers. What are your billable hours and how can you move up from a £1m biller to £2m+? Do you need to hire to create more leverage, better value your time, or look at how you blend your rates?

It is important to be honest here, no matter how comfortable you might feel in your current firm. If you cannot see a way to grow your billings as you aim for equity, it might be time to find a firm where you can.

3. Should I stay or should I go?

The final big question must be answered honestly and objectively, free from sentiments such as ‘I like the people’ and ‘I’m comfortable here’.

Given what you have considered about your motivations, numbers and skills – can you achieve your equity ambitions at your current firm? Do you have the time and support you need to increase your billings, are there opportunities to get involved in business development, cross-selling, leadership? Is my practice area a priority the firm is supporting with investment?

If the answer is ‘no’, then you need to decide what’s important – loyalty or ambition. If it is the latter, then a well-planned career move might be the only way forward.

Think about the remuneration model that might best suit you. Is it the traditional, lockstep, the individualistic eat what you kill or a more meritocratic hybrid model? Which is most likely to promote the working style and culture you can thrive in?

Start Early

In truth, these days it is not enough to think about career steps one at a time. Associates and newly appointed salaried partners should already be thinking about their routes to equity.

So, plan at least five years ahead and get specialist advice from someone with an overview of the whole market who can advise on the right steps to take – it is the surest way to avoid dead ends and make efficient, sure-footed steps towards a clearly defined equity goal.

Until law firms are transparent and honest about the journey to equity – and thereby fix the succession planning and structural issues the current situation creates – anything else is to trust to luck. And what self-respecting lawyer would do that? n

Definitive Consulting is a leading executive search firm focused solely on partner level appointments for law, accountancy, and consulting firms with offices in London, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Melbourne, and Sydney.

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