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The Singapore Law Gazette

Climbing the Private Practice “Ladder”

Getting called to the Bar is much like getting your driver’s licence. You can legally operate your vehicle on a road, but you are now probably the most dangerous thing on it. You will face many challenges in your legal career. Some will be significant, some less so. But it is a career you have started, and this journey needs some direction and guidance.

Perhaps the single largest factor that will influence how your legal career will pan out is the difficult choices you will make on where you work. A related query is how you want to work.

Formal requirements mean that you have likely just completed a training contract with a law firm. You are likely to have already signed an employment contract and are waiting to receive your “Associate” or “Junior Associate” name cards. You will (rightly) be wondering: What is the point of all this?

Tip #1: Don’t chase Yusof Ishak – chase after mentors who can and are willing to teach you

Practising law is a job. Naturally, the first point of this is to earn money. Barring some exceptions, the wages you will earn in the first few years of practice are not likely to be very different wherever you may go. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t check singaporelawmeme’s IG account for the latest wage data points; it just means that this should be a less significant factor.

Associates, by whatever name called, are the proverbial “bottom of the food chain” in the traditional private practice pyramid. Many see this as a downside. I disagree.

While the peak of the pyramid structurally amounts to the prestigious upper echelons where you (supposedly) sip champagne while dining on caviar in the back seat of your Rolls-Royce, the sobering reality is that your height within the pyramid equates proportionately with your level of responsibility and risk. She who tops the pyramid, takes the greatest risk, and also falls the furthest when things go wrong.

Conversely, down at the base, you are given space to make mistakes, learn, and be better. Understanding this role, and its expectations, will be the key to success.

You will naturally ask: How do I achieve this success? The answer: Learn Things … Efficiently, Completely and Quickly.

This goes back to my first tip, which is to find your mentors. I say mentors (plural), because your legal career appetite will be fed by more than just the lead partner. You will need guidance from the middle tiers of seniors as well. Search out these mentors and your journey to progress will be fruitful.

Tip #2: Actual progress is not about title but acquiring more proficiency in more aspects of lawyering

When you are done as an Associate, you will be re-titled a Senior Associate. You may also see a variation of this in some international practices as “Managing Associate”. Regardless of the nomenclature, the term refers to a more experienced Associate. Here’s where the differences in the types of private practices emerge.

Not all Senior Associates are equal

In large domestic law firms, the promotion to Senior Associate is mostly a factor of the passage of time; you will spend about 3+ years as an Associate and then between 31 December and 1 January, “BOOM”, you become a Senior Associate.

Though a product of this myself, I harbour doubts on whether time passing should be the key factor to warrant an outward re-designation to the world at large. I am, of course, over-simplifying the matter. Obviously, in a large organisation there is utility in having promotion windows at defined periods. There is also the inward utility of having signposts within a firm structure signalling who is senior and who is junior to them.

Plus, it’s nice to tell that annoying auntie who asks when you are getting married at the CNY gathering that you’re now a “Senior Associate”, before she puts you back in your place by saying her son is a neurosurgeon working on a cure for Alzheimer’s. The structure also promotes certainty, and as lawyers, we love a bit of certainty.

The Senior Associate title tends to be more merit-based in smaller or boutique domestic law firms, and in international firms. One could wait many more years before it is bestowed. This also means that if you moved laterally from a local firm to an international firm, you could “lose” your Senior Associate title, because of different organisation criteria – and you should not be disheartened by this.

None of this is to criticize any firm’s practices, but to drive home the point that less emphasis ought to be placed on when you attain the title, but instead one should focus on attaining the substance of what the title represents.

To me, she who is a Senior Associate must already have the core skills of research, drafting, and presentation preparation at high competency levels, and is ready to hone the next set of lawyering skills.

Think of it as growing circles of competence. As you mature in legal practice, you move out to the next ring of proficiency, though never slacking on the previous.

What these next set of lawyering skills are will depend on your areas of practice. For example, in dispute resolution, it would include competency in written and oral advocacy in difficult situations, and holistic case theory development. Performing as a Senior Associate therefore requires you to identify these skills, and actively learn and practise your proficiency in them.

Tip #3: To be a partner or director you must learn the business of legal practice

Traditionally, when you are done as a Senior Associate you are elevated to become a Partner. This isn’t actually fully traditional; on the rare occasions when you sit down with a very senior lawyer, they will tell you that they were Associate for 2+ years and became a Partner thereafter. That’s only because Senior Associates weren’t a thing back then. The modern era has also led to modern intermediate stages. Brace yourselves.

First, “Senior Associates” were invented so that lawyers could be maintained for longer as Associates (therefore delaying partnership), but nevertheless give them a feeling of seniority.

Second, and sitting between “Senior Associates” and “Partners” are “Salaried Partners”. For completeness, the term “Partner” and “Director” can be used interchangeably in this context, where the former is applicable when the law firm is a partnership, and the latter when the law firm is a corporation.

Third, the real distinction is whether one has equity. The real tip of the hierarchy pyramid is the partner/director who holds equity. Every other partner/director howsoever named, is, in truth, a “Salaried Partner”.

What makes things especially confusing is that not all law firms openly broadcast which of their partners/directors have equity and which do not. This makes sense from a business development perspective, since potential clients will view all lawyers as of a certain uniform standing, but it can make identifying the actual tiers quite difficult.

Fourth, and further adding to the confusion, is the existence of other intermediate levels or different paths. One of which is the title of “Of Counsel”. The title finds its roots in US law firms, and generally describes an attorney of partner-calibre or vintage, but is nevertheless not a Partner and perhaps undertakes a lesser workload or responsibilities.

To resolve the confusion, I would personally delineate it as follows: Salaried Partner version 1 is a lawyer who aspires to be an Equity Partner. Salaried Partner version 2 is a lawyer who has reached his personal summit, without the need to go further.

As was the case before, in large domestic law firms promotion to become a Salaried Partner is usually a factor of time – around 3.5 years after you become a Senior Associate. I repeat my thoughts on this above mutatis mutandis. In smaller domestic practices, the promotion is less defined by time. In international practices, the intermediary designation may not even exist, and one could only rise from Senior Associate to full-fledged Equity Partner.

Regardless of the title wordplay, the true transition comes with the further responsibility circle encompassing the business of legal practice.

The business of legal practice is the way that you actually make money for the law firm. It stretches far beyond just doing the work placed in front of you. It demands that you find clients, maintain client relationships, do the work, keep the client and get paid. Basically, a whole host of additional burdens that neither law school nor bar school prepared you for.

In truth, the full gamut of these responsibilities will already be observable when you are an Associate. Those nights (and mornings after) when you lament your team leader for being unable to clear your draft because she had a dinner (which turned into drinks) from a visiting CEO from Japan from a case concluded four years ago, will be one such example. The awkward telephone conversation your team leader had with an aggressive matrimonial client about an invoice unpaid for four weeks will be another example.

The real skills you must identify to work on to be ready for partnership are team-facing, client-facing and public-facing.

The team-facing skills involve managing juniors and staff to maintain growth and morale. It requires understanding the people you work with, and customizing and refining work styles and methods to achieve optimum productivity.

The client-facing skills involve uniquely customizing your interactions to match the needs of the client. Some clients need to be sayang-ed with words of empathy. Others may have the need to feel intellectually stimulated and respected. Identifying what is needed, and delivering it permeates through every client update and conversation. It builds the trust between lawyer-and-client that develops long-term relationships that will survive any bad outcomes or mistakes.

The public-facing skills involve business development courage. In this modern world, the expectation is for every lawyer to consistently come across as up-to-date, eminent and learned. This takes substantial preparation, a commitment to being involved (whether in publication or public speaking), and to do all the above with consistency.

As for promotion to equity, there are no law firms that (should) offer this on any criteria other than merit. In truth, calling it a promotion is something of a misnomer. Equity (or directorship) is offered, and one must then buy into the partnership, or the shares. The cost may be high.

The rewards of partnership can be substantial. But not more substantial than the inherent risks. It is easy to speak of the good times, but one must always remember that when collections are low, it is the top of the pyramid that feels it the most, when continuing to approve salaries and (modest) bonuses, rent checks and utility bills, without any assurance of when the good times may return.

Though seemingly bleak, one should remember that these are the same concerns of any business owner in any industry. In that context it’s really not that bad.

Tip #4: The greatest skill you need now is to be self-aware

When I was invited to pen this article, I suspect the implied intention may have been to suggest to the reader that they should seriously consider being and staying in private practice.

I’m not going to say that.

The evolving landscape of opportunities for those who are legally trained is a reality. I am also a firm believer that everyone ought to choose their own unique path, particularly for something as lengthy as an entire career.

What I will suggest is that if you have a desire to be in the professional services field, and serve a range and variety of different clients, then private practice may, in fact, be for you. That’s not all. I would also suggest that if private practice is for you, that you give it a genuine and wholehearted attempt.

Having delivered my two “put” questions, I have to explain what I mean by “genuine and wholehearted”.

We have all heard the stories of private practice lawyers having very difficult times, particularly as juniors. Often, this is used as justification to exit private practice. I am not certain that such a decision is always correct.

Our decision-making process is, empirically, a combination of our objective and subjective evaluations of conditions and/or situations. Confronted with a difficult circumstance, it may seem logical to extract yourself from it. In my view, there is nothing conceptually wrong with that, so long as you have accurately understood what created that situation.

To me, it all comes down to honest, objective self-awareness.

The private practice life, consistent with any other profession that deals with multiple different clients, will inevitably be a roller-coaster of issues, wins, losses and frustrations. Some will thrive in such conditions finding satisfaction in their ability to overcome difficulty and find answers where no one else can. Others, will not.

Having a keen awareness of yourself will likely be the key to figuring out which camp you will fall in. This is, regrettably, an area where we humans are weak in. And the confusion that a lack of self-awareness creates tends to get compounded if our echo chambers are in a similar situation.

I cannot tell you how to develop self-awareness. I would only ask that if you find yourself doubting the private practice path, be truly objective with why you feel that way, so that you do not mistakenly rob yourself of the opportunity of a career that you are well suited for. A cure for a hostile environment could be an internal transfer, or a lateral move. A cure for frustration at work ability could be an agreed absence for further study. You owe it to yourself to explore all the solutions first, before you pull the plug.

Bonus Tip #5: Everyone who came before you will not know exactly what you are going through –cut them some slack but appreciate the sharing and goodwill

Private practice is a “club” like no other. Being (perhaps) the largest segment of practising lawyers there is shared experience (joy or suffering) which naturally lends itself to providing a community. Being part of that community is valuable.

In my 10+ years of practice, I have developed remarkable relationships with colleagues and “adversaries” which have seen me through the most challenging circumstances and with whom I have shared successes and failures in equal measure. I have yet to come across a senior who is unwilling to share a war story or two, or who would deny a listening ear when needed. Though their advice may be perhaps more pertinent to its time, it is always offered. I think this is a hard thing to otherwise come by in adult life.

I wish you the best of luck in navigating your career path ahead in law. Wherever that path may lead, we are already colleagues at the Bar, and you should never hold back from asking a brother or sister from pointing you in a good direction.

Salem Ibrahim LLC