Becoming a Partner: The Routes to Partnership


The route to partnership is different for everyone.

Some people may step into the shoes of a retiring partner and take over their practice/clients at an already established firm, others may wish to set up their own firm and run it from the beginning, but most people will build their own practice or niche to complement their firm’s existing client portfolio or focus with a view to putting together a business case for partnership at their chosen firm.  Usually, people become a  partner because they are indispensable to their firm and they are usually indispensable because they have built their own practice or niche.

There are 4 different routes to partnership that each individual’s career path will follow:

  • traditional route – working your way up from trainee to partnership within the same firm.
  • lateral route – where you work your way up to partnership by changing firms.
  • In House route – where you work your way up to partnership taking a detour into industry and work for a period of time in-house, before returning to private practice.
  • Setting up your own firm – where you set up your own practice, either as a sole practitioner or as part of a small partnership.

1. Traditional Route

Historically it was not uncommon for people to stay at one firm for the entirety of their career. While some lawyers will continue to dedicate their career to one firm, it is more common for people to move firms at some point in their career. For this route to be the one for you, you need to be confident that your values and professional goals align with those of the firm, that the firm will be able to meet your personal ambitions and that it feels right. With many firms taking on large numbers of lateral hires for strategic reasons or to develop a particular practice, not everyone can be confident in making the grade as the growth is not always sustainable. Sometimes the opportunity will only come up if a partner retires… whatever the route – make sure you have an understanding of ‘how it works’ at your firm.

2. Lateral Route

You may move many times in your career, you may not even necessarily move specifically for a partnership position, but people do move for opportunities. If you are an aspiring partner and there is no clear path to partnership at your current firm, you may wish to consider changing firms, to find a better “fit”. You don’t have to be afraid of making this move earlier in your career, with a view of developing your career at a different other than where you trained (or are currently at). Alternatively, if you are further along in your career you may feel that you may have more success making a lateral move, whether for partnership or a more senior position with the promise of a shot at partnership if you can deliver on your business plan.

3. Moving from In-House to Partnership

Yes, In-House is very different from private practice, but if you have previously worked in private practice, and understand the pressure of private practice there is no reason why you cannot make the move from In-House to Partner. There are lots of transferable skills, and your network, contacts and focus will be different to others already in private practice – you will just need to understand how these can be used to your advantage and how you would use these in private practice. You must use your industry/sector knowledge to your advantage.

However, the move is not always straight from In-House to Partner and you may have to work as a solicitor first. However, this is not a bad thing as it gives you time to settle (back) into private practice without the pressure of partnership.

There may be a question about your ability to turn your skills and contacts into a “practice” when you make the leap. So if you are thinking about coming out of industry and into private practice you need to have confidence, but also be realistic. You also need to consider what you can genuinely do in your early years – don’t overpromise!

4. Setting up on your own

As an alternative, you may wish to set up on your own. There are three different options, you could buy into an established practice which is for sale, buy a franchise or start your own practice from scratch (either alone or with a business partner).