Denver Bar Association
October 2004
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The Dark Side to Making Partner

by Jenny B. Davis

The Fine Line Between Friends and Associates

Reprinted from the Oct. 2003 edition of the ABA Journal.

In January, Thomas J. Ramsdell joined what he jokingly calls "the dark side." Nearly three years after joining Chicago’s Marshall, Gerstein & Borun as a lateral hire, the litigator became a partner at the 70-lawyer intellectual property firm.

Ramsdell expected his new title to bring administrative and marketing responsibilities that would significantly change his workload. But what he didn’t expect was a change in his relationships with fellow lawyers who remained at the associate level.

"Most of the associates I work with I am close to as friends—I always thought of them as colleagues, and I still do. That didn’t change on Jan. 1," Ramsdell says. "But I will say that in a sense the associates had a more notable change in their view than I did. Our work was the same, but there was a bit more formality, like, ‘When a partner asks you to do something, you do it,’ and that difference in the way certain people responded to me was a little surprising."


Moving to a management position can be a difficult transition, but there are some easy things newly promoted lawyers can do to ensure they’ll still be welcomed at the water cooler.

If there’s a grace period between the promotion announcement and actual start date, legal management consultant John Olmstead of St. Louis recommends taking advantage of the time by developing a "relationship plan." This doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Olmstead says it can be as simple as brainstorming and making some notes on a piece of paper, so long as it gets the lawyer thinking about how he or she will approach and maintain relationships.

Once the lawyer has assumed the higher rung, one of the most sensitive spots can involve assigning work, says Holly English, a consultant and former practicing lawyer in Montclair, N.J.

"You’ve been friends and now you’ve got more seniority. It’s easy for that to become a murky relationship and there may be a certain level of resentment, but you can’t let the relationship blur the responsibility," she says.

When parceling out projects, English says it’s imperative to convey that the assignment, although it comes from a friend, must be taken seriously. She suggests an "all business" approach. "Be very clear, be very specific and don’t joke around. You should convey that at the end of the day, the most important thing is that the work is done on time and is of high quality," she says. "You don’t have to be a jerk, but it’s important to communicate seriousness and gravity so they don’t feel like they can take advantage of you."

This approach can also help guard against other associates who might now view your friendships as shows of favoritism, she says.

Newly promoted partners also have to be mindful about disclosing information concerning firm management, including finances, says English. "It may happen that you will have an inside track on sensitive information, like who’s earning what or who’s getting promoted, that you can’t share."

If a former peer asks you to divulge a secret, English says it’s best to just be honest and explain that the information is confidential. To keep things from getting awkward, however, English suggests having an answer like this at the ready: "Oh, there’s a whole area that I can’t talk about now. I’m not trying to be highfalutin—I just can’t and I’m sorry."

Ramsdell credits honesty with helping to smooth his transition to partnership. "Your role may switch, but you have to be honest with other people, and you have to be honest with yourself about who you are," he says.

"We have a unique firm culture here that involves close relationships, and to me, preserving that atmosphere is one of my biggest goals. The demands of the practice can change the nature of your relationships, but getting a title shouldn’t change who you are as a person. If you remember that, you will always be welcome."

“Redefining Relationships: You Don’t Have to Lose Your Associate Friends When You Make Partner,” by Jenny B. Davis. From the ABA Journal, Volume 89, Oct. 2003. Copyright © 2003 American Bar Association. Reprinted by Permission.

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