Keeping Your Partnership Options Open is a Terrible BigLaw Strategy
Consider your options
Common question: Are you going to go for partner?
Common answer: I’m not sure yet, but I’m keeping my options open.
BigLaw’s True Believers already know they want to go for partner, while the Disenchanted already know they don’t. But for a sizable majority of us in BigLaw, the answer to this important question isn’t clear, or at least not immediately. We aren’t initially sure if we want to go for partner, and so we respond to this uncertainty by ‘keeping our options open.’ Options are good, right?
Options are good. But what options are we talking about?
When you decide to pursue the common BigLaw associate strategy of 'keeping your options open,' practically speaking, this means you don't know what you want out of BigLaw. This is problematic: achieving any sort of ambitious goal in an environment like BigLaw—whether that goal is partnership, or $1 million before partnership, or a high quality of life—requires relentless commitment, and an 'options open' strategy simply doesn't cut it.
From ‘partnership options’ to partnership
Consider first whether the strategy of ‘keeping your partnership options open’ is likely to be effective at doing what it says: what are your chances of actually making partner pursuing this strategy? We would not expect this strategy to perform well. Partnership is typically reserved for those who demonstrate exceptionally high levels of commitment both to the firm in general and to the ideal of unwavering client service in the face of significant personal sacrifice. If you are interested in partnership, then the primary danger of an ‘options open’ strategy is that it does not effectively communicate to your firm and group that you are fully committed and will make the necessary sacrifices if elevated. To the contrary, your supervisors are likely to sense that you are something less than ‘all in.’
Partnership does not often come as a nice surprise to those who aren’t sure if they want it. Rather, partnership is most often bestowed upon those who, for years, have consistently lobbied the power brokers at their firm to back them. Ultimately, at most firms and practice groups, an equivocating ‘options open’ strategy is not a great strategy for preserving partnership options. If partnership is your goal, a much better strategy is to confidently vocalize that goal to the powers that be and to consistently advocate for yourself in the years leading up to the partnership-elevation process.
And what if you pursue an 'options open' strategy and don’t make partner? If you don’t make partner, then the only thing your ‘options open’ strategy accomplished was over-sacrifice. Not only did you just spend years working much harder than you might have liked and missing out on important life experiences, but your over-sacrifice was never especially likely to lead to partnership anyway. So, at a minimum, ‘keeping your options open’ likely resulted in a massive waste of your time and energy. But time wasted isn’t the only danger. It’s also possible that pursuit of this strategy led to burnout, mental health issues, relationship problems and a host of other issues.
Mutually exclusive options
Keeping your partnership options open similarly entails that certain other options are now off limits (or become more difficult to pursue). For example, you may find that the option of going on a year-long sabbatical to Eat, Pray, Love around the world is more challenging when you choose to keep your partnership options open. Or, less dramatically, even the option of saying ‘no’ to a weekend assignment request may be foreclosed for the associate who has decided to keep their partnership options open. Generally speaking, any option that involves treating your BigLaw career as a lower priority relative to other personal goals will be more difficult when you choose to keep your partnership options open. This is unfortunate, but also the reality of what is typically required to make partner in BigLaw.
Some options are mutually exclusive, so you cannot reasonably keep all your options open. Keeping partnership options open necessarily closes other options (possibly including, for example, the option of aggressively pursuing life-work balance strategies that allow for both wealth accumulation and a higher quality of life). Does keeping your partnership options open close better options? The answer to that question will depend on your career goals and other personal circumstances. The question is—is an ‘options open’ strategy your best option?
The jellyfish option
Even beyond its general ineffectiveness at achieving positive outcomes, another reason that ‘keeping your options open’ is usually a bad strategy is because it’s not really a ‘strategy’ at all. At least not in the sense of a ‘strategy’ borne out of thoughtful contemplation. More often than not, it is instead just a let’s-see-what-happens strategy. Like the jellyfish, you simply go wherever the current takes you. And where is that exactly?
Associates pursuing an ‘options open’ strategy do not often take the time to carefully reflect on how that decision aligns with their personal goals and values. Nor do they rigorously assess the ramifications of the strategy, weighing its pros and cons, before concluding that it is superior to other available strategies.
More typically, pursuit of the ‘options open’ strategy is a seemingly logical (although not particularly thoughtful) response to uncertainty: you aren’t sure that you’ll make partner—or that you even want to make partner—so you bury your head in the sand. By purporting to keep your options open, you put off having to contemplate the much harder question of what it is that you really want, and how you might actually get there. As it turns out, an ‘options open’ strategy does not involve a lot of strategic thinking.
Don’t be afraid
So the ‘options open’ strategy is neither particularly strategic nor especially effective. What’s the alternative then? The alternative begins with knowing what you want. Of course, you may not know what you want at the outset, and that’s okay. As junior associates we didn’t either, which is normal. (And, to be fair, keeping your options open can be useful as a temporary strategy, such as if you are early in your career, or at an inflection point in your personal life, and genuinely need some more time to consider your options and come to a decision.) But you shouldn’t let that uncertainty linger too long.
The best response to not knowing what you want is to figure out what you want. Do that, and then you can start pursuing a strategy that actually gets you where you want to go, instead of wherever the current takes you.
Even if you think you aren’t sure about whether to pursue partnership, if you get real with yourself then you’ll probably find that you know a lot more than you think. Professed uncertainty in this situation is often a manifestation of fear of failure.
For some, the truth lurking just beneath the surface is that you do want to make partner, but you’re afraid to think it and say it because if you don’t make it, then you are a failure. For others, the truth hiding in plain sight is that you don’t want to be a partner, which you are also afraid to acknowledge because everyone knows that the pinnacle of success in BigLaw means becoming a partner, so opting out of partnership means that you are a failure.
This latter category once captured us. We’ve since learned that neither of these outcomes should be considered a failure. Falling short of your goals isn’t failure; roads to success are often bumpy. But when we choose not to pursue our goals at all, we fail ourselves. It can be scary to commit to what you want, but that’s how you get it.
One door closes, another opens
In our third year in BigLaw, we both realized that neither one of us wanted to become a partner. The question then became what we would do with this information. Quitting wasn’t our preferred option, as we still wanted to use BigLaw as a tool for wealth accumulation. We hoped that—with the pressures of partnership removed—we might be able to continue banking BigLaw paychecks for many more years, but while billing at a more relaxed pace that would allow us to concurrently pursue other time-intensive personal goals. To test the waters, we began sending out soft signals that partnership wasn’t our goal. These missives weren’t met with undue resistance, so in our fourth year we started telling our group leaders outright that we weren’t interested in the big promotion and wanted to pursue alternative career tracks instead.
Vocally closing our partnership options was among the best and most important career decisions we’ve made, as it opened up so many other life-enhancing options for us.
It no longer seemed scary to ask for a part-time schedule and then, later, fully remote work in the Tetons. We stopped worrying about matching the frenetic pace of our peers, who logged significantly more hours. We confidently took all of our vacation days, often in off-the-grid locations without internet access. Vacation time wasn’t enough, so we started spending several months each year working remotely from dozens of domestic and international destinations. Granted, we still experienced some stress as mid-level and then senior associates, but our supervisors were generally more accommodating of our schedules since they knew we weren’t going to ask for (or expect) a partnership promotion at the end of our associate runway.
Most of all, opting out of partnership gave us direction. With the partnership door shut, we were no longer standing at a fork in the road, unsure of which way to go. The road to adventure was wide open. In the final analysis, our advice is simply this: before you decide to keep your options open, consider your options.