The biggest question you may have before an upcoming interview is, “What are they looking for? Do they want someone who would be a good associate, or are they looking for someone who has the best potential to be a successful partner?” In virtually all cases, the answer is definitely the former. At this stage, no one is really concerned whether you are partner material.
But why not? The chances of becoming a partner (equity or non-equity) at the firm you start with range from uncertain to infinitesimal, depending on the prestige, size and location of the firm. If the firm is a BigLaw firm, the chances are almost nil – we are exaggerating, but not by much. You might have a potential to be an excellent attorney, but for many, after a few years of toiling away working around the clock, they come to be a realization that being a partner is not what they want. They’d rather work in-house at a corporation, go into public interest or government, move to a smaller firm, or get out of law altogether, to have more meaningful life and career, and more time with their loved ones and other interests.
Many will be enticed by a headhunter to jump ship for (allegedly) greener pastures at another law firm. And yet others would be asked to leave, mostly for performance issues in terms of billable hours or realization rates (i.e., revenue collection rates). So, by the time fourth or fifth-year of tenure rolls around, if not lot sooner, most of your “classmates” would likely be gone.
It normally takes at least 8 to 10 years to become a partner of any kind at a BigLaw. When you combine the above factors, you would recognize why no one is thinking about your partnership potential. Why bother, (most of) you would be gone anyway!
Moreover, being a successful associate and a successful partner often require two different sets of skills in many aspects, though many people excel at both. Firms and their attorneys want a productive worker bee to fill their needs immediately; they aren’t looking for a possible payoff several years down the road because they figure that “partnership material” would eventually be filtered out through the natural selection process, or that the firm would add able and productive partners as laterals from other firms as the need arises.
So, how do you use this information in your interviews? Emphasize the traits that would make you a good associate, and stop blowing smoke about how you are going to be a rainmaker, excellent supervisor and so on. We will have a post about this in the future, but basically being a good associate means that you would make a great worker bee with fabulous attitude in the face of crushing work load, little guidance, zero family or social life, and low office morale.
Your takeaway: None of your interviewers would be evaluating you on whether you would make a good partner or if you have a partnership potential. You know that us Americans are totally incapable of looking 8-10 years into the future, and no one hardly sticks around long enough to even be eligible for the partnership promotion. Therefore, focus on conveying the idea that you would make an hardworking, loyal, astute and responsible subordinate. Bonus: Don’t ever, EVER, say stuff like, “When I become a partner here . . . . .”