The Bar News

Best Practice: Developing a law firm associate career progression/partnership admission program

Asked and Answered

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. Our firm is a 14 lawyer firm in Phoenix, Arizona. We are a new firm (formed 8 years ago) and we have 5 equity partners and 9 associates. Several of the associates have been with us since day one (8 years) and are asking us about partnership. We want to be fair and keep our top talent. What are your thoughts on this topic?

A. A common complaint that we hear from our interviews of associates is lack of feedback on short term performance and what is takes to "make partner" and how they are progressing toward eventual partnership. During a recent interview an associate told me - I would like to know:

1. What does it take to become a partner - consideration criteria? What do I have to do?

2. What is the timeline for consideration?

3. How am I doing - am I partnership material?

4. What does partnership mean in this firm?

5. What are the mechanics of admission? (Is there a buy-in)

I suggest that you and your partners consider developing what I call a Law Firm Associate Career Progression/Partnership Program and put it in writing. Here is an approach you might take:

1. Determine if you want more partners? How many - evaluate the appropriate ratio.

2. Consider non-equity partners as a first step and determine what that means.

3. Establish a minimum number of years for consideration - i.e. seven years.

4. Determine competencies and expectation for associate development and document.

5. Develop an associate performance evaluation form and conduct formal annual evaluations.

6. Develop partner admission criteria (associate to non-equity and non-equity to equity partner) and document.

7. Write-up an overall program document and include as attachments the competencies document, the performance evaluation form, and the admission criteria document.

8. Present the program to associates in a live meeting format to launch the program.

Regarding equity partnership - make the criteria tough - and require a buy-in or capital contribution. Business development and a client following should be required by most firms for the equity tier.

Click here for our blog on law firm partnership

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC,( is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at

Posted on October 31, 2012 by Chris Bonjean

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