The mystique of the legal profession and concept of making partner is one of the entertainment industry's obsessions. Countless novels, television serials and films conjure images of power and the greedy acquisition of wealth at great cost, with the road to partnership being pockmarked with seemingly impregnable obstacles including extraordinarily long hours, pressure to bill and pressure to take morally and legally questionable actions.
But much of that is misinformation on what it takes and means to attain partnership in a law practice.
George Rountree III is the former senior partner and now special council to Rountree Losee LLP, which has 110-year-old roots in the community. While no longer a partner, Rountree still goes in to work every day. To him, partnership status is more than just time at the firm--how long you've been there. Other considerations include personality and productivity in profits and performance.
"Do you attract business; do you take that business and make it into a profitable venture for the firm?" he says. "Do you manage your clients well, does the client leave the firm feeling happy about what they have gotten from you? Would the client come back to you, recommend people to consult with you, all those things?"
It is important to get along with those you work with and those you work for.
"The law practice is a people business," Rountree says. "It's one thing to attract business that's profitable; it is another thing to have a personality that endears you to the people working with you."
An obvious consideration for law firm partnership is bringing in work that is profitable.
"I know in my firm how much it costs per hour per lawyer to keep the doors open, that's a benchmark and lawyers have got to produce more than that to justify the amount of money we are paying him and the rather spacious and well-suited office we have," he says. "The last thing is your ability to manage new lawyers, and produce enough work to give to the new lawyers, to bring in more business than you can handle and hand it off to people."
Seeking partnership in a large firm is a personal decision. While the large-firm, high-prestige atmosphere appeals to some, others prefer the independence and freedom of a small practice.
Robert A. "Bob" O'Quinn, Wrightsville Beach mayor for two years and mayor pro tem for six, is the proprietor of the solo practice bearing his name. He now concentrates his practice in assisting opposing parties in settling their lawsuits as a Superior Court Certified Mediator.
Before starting his own practice, O'Quinn was a longtime partner in "the largest law firm in Wilmington at the time, Stevens, McGhee, Morgan, Lennon, O'Quinn & Toll," he says. The partners were expected to convene on cases, and "every stapler, pencil, you name it, had to go by a committee for approval."
Large law firms control which cases are accepted, fees for representation, and as O'Quinn notes, the use of funds for office necessities. The small practice model does not exert the same type of pressure. O'Quinn calls it very liberating; he takes at least five cruises each year with his wife, Catherine.
While bigger law firms can seem oppressive, having full-time staff manage the administrative and business aspects of practice can be well worth any potential downside. Large firms also have the wherewithal to market services to a vast pool of potential clients. This is invaluable to new attorneys who need to establish a client base. That makes staying at a large firm --and making partner--an attractive proposition.
Ryal Tayloe is a partner with Ward & Smith, P.A., a 97-lawyer firm with offices in Asheville, Greenville, New Bern, Raleigh and Wilmington.
"We have directors of human resources, information technology, recruiting and professional development, and marketing," he says. "All of these positions are filled by people who are not attorneys."
A large practice was the best fit for Erin T. Collins, who recently was named partner with Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo LLP, a firm with 11 attorneys in its Wilmington office.
She does not believe the issues commonly thought to be considerations at large firms--class rank, Law Review participation, billed hours--were major factors for her firm in offering her a partnership.
"(Hedrick Gardner) values firm-mindedness, productivity, client retention, and ability to mentor associates and paralegals," she says. "There is no particular formula for reaching partnership."
There was a time when it would have been nearly impossible for Collins to make partner. There was a seemingly impenetrable gender barrier, a virtual "men only" sign to the upper echelons of firms. Those days are mostly gone.
"I believe in many years past there [was] a 'glass ceiling' for female attorneys seeking partnership, but that is no longer the case," says John Martin, who has practiced in Wilmington since 1985 and founded Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP's Wilmington office in 2001.
Collins has a long list of accomplishments: recognized with numerous high honors from law school, selected three times to the prestigious annual North Carolina Rising Stars list, published nationally by Super Lawyers Magazine. But she says it was the mentorship aspects that helped her get established and prepared her for partnership.
"There is an emphasis on mentoring," she says. "The partners helped me develop my practice, introducing me to clients and potential clients and helping me learn to analyze and apply the law to the circumstances of our clients."
Just as at Hedrick Gardner, when it comes to making partner, Ward & Smith values teamwork, loyalty and well roundedness over more traditional benchmarks.
"When considering attorneys for shareholder status, we look at the whole person," Tayloe says. "After several years of working together as a team, we know people very well. We expect excellent legal work and a good 'presence' in the community."
Potential shareholders must "put the interests of their fellow attorneys and the law firm ahead of their personal interests," he says.
Excellent legal work and putting the firm first are ranked among the common denominators in making partner.
"Our firm, like most law firms, takes into account excellent quality of legal work, work ethic, revenue generated, ability to attract and retain clients, and commitment to the firm," Martin says.
Diversity of work and experience is also important.
Patrick Mincey, a trial lawyer recently named partner with Cranfill Sumner, took advantage of as many in-the-field opportunities as possible while at Mercer Law School in Macon, Georgia. He clerked for a trial judge, worked death penalty clinics--"anything to get a taste for the dust that I wasn't hearing from law professors," he says.
Mincey, who concentrates on business litigation and criminal defense at both the federal and state level, leads Cranfill Sumner's white-collar and criminal-defense group. His greatest passion is criminal defense, but says he nevertheless enjoys a diverse practice.
Belying another Hollywood stereotype, Collins maintains that her firm encourages a healthy work/life balance. Office hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, although she admits squeezing in additional work time at night and on weekends but only to the extent that it does not sacrifice family time.
"I'm sure some weeks are 40 hours, and it can go up to 50-plus if there is a huge hearing or brief or a crazy week in general," she says.
Mincey's firm also encourages a life outside of work, but he says he averages about 60-75 hours each week.
"My clients' problems don't happen during regular business hours," Mincey says.
Making partner does mean being available; today's clients expect to reach their attorneys any day of the week and at any time of day.
"Client expectations have changed," Martin observes. "Clients expect their counsel to be available by e-mail and cell phone, outside of office hours and on weekends. I don't think there is a happy medium. When a client needs your help, they need your help, and they expect you to be accessible."
With privilege comes responsibility. It goes with the territory of making partner--and of being a good attorney.
A Wilmington native and 1996 graduate of Campbell University's Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, Mary Margaret McEachern, left, practiced with Allen & MacDonald, a local real estate law firm, until she opened her own law office. She practiced with her husband, Robert E. Dillow Jr., at the firm of Dillow & McEachern, P.A., until their retirement in 2013. Her practice concentrated in civil litigation, real estate litigation, homeowners' associations, appeals, business law, intellectual property, estate planning and estate administration.