Sidley Austin Gets Serious About Onboarding

The law firm’s yearlong onboarding program positions new partners for long-term success.

Becoming a partner in a major law firm is the dream for many lawyers toiling away tirelessly for years to get their chance. But the transition from an associate to partner can still be a shock, said Carter Phillips, chair of the executive committee for Sidley Austin LLP, one of the largest corporate law firms in the United States with 1,900 lawyers and $1.87 billion in annual revenue.

“It is a fundamental change that has a profound impact on your life,” he said.

Carter Phillips, chair of the executive committee for Sidley Austin LLP

As a partner, lawyers are compensated differently. They face complex quarterly tax requirements, are expected to generate their own business and be held fully accountable for the outcomes of their work. “It can be a jarring experience,” said Phillips who became a partner at the firm in 1986.

Sidley Austin promotes a new class of associates to partner every year and for years that experience happened fairly rapidly with little training or support. Promotions were announced in mid-December and the firm hosted a half-day orientation in early January with 15-30 minute back-to-back presentations on everything they needed to know to be a partner.

“It could be overwhelming,” said Jody Rosen Knower, chief training and professional development officer. Knower had been involved in revamping the firm’s new associate onboarding process and she felt like the move to partner would benefit from a more robust approach. In 2013, she and her team surveyed partners who had transitioned in the past five years about their orientation experience, the questions they had and the areas where they wished they had more support.

“We got an unprecedented 100 percent response rate which on its own was pretty telling,” she said. They also surveyed the executive leadership team about where they felt new partners needed more training to get up to speed.

The feedback consistently showed new partners didn’t feel equipped to handle the transition and they were confused about the compensation process and other aspects of being a partner. Based on their input and their own observations, Knower’s team developed a road map for a yearlong onboarding program to give new partners the confidence, support and knowledge they needed to be successful right out of the gate.

Sidley’s executive team — who had their own fraught experiences in transitioning to partner — fully supported the idea and Knower’s approach. “Jody and her team did a remarkable job on this,” Phillips said. “What impressed me the most is that they interviewed a lot of partners about what they wish they had known and incorporated that into the format.”

What to Expect the First Year

Knower’s team launched the new onboarding program the following year. Like the prior program, the new onboarding program begins in January. Shortly after the promotion announcement, new partners receive a series of emails explaining exactly what they should expect, when key events will take place and who they could turn to with questions in the meantime.

Sara Garcia Duran

“It was very soothing,” said Sara Garcia Duran who became a partner in 2015. “When you don’t know what’s coming, it’s nice to have someone there to tell you what to expect.”

In February, all new partners participate in a two-day onsite workshop where each of the original orientation sessions is expanded and includes more opportunities for interaction and questions. One of the most important sessions covers how partner compensation and taxes work.

This session alone is critical because partners no longer get paychecks every two weeks, Phillips said. Sidley has a closed-book partner system where each partner’s compensation is determined by the executive committee at the end of each year which means new partners have little idea what or when they will be paid. “If they don’t understand the financial arrangement, they could spend all of their money in the first month,” he said.

Other sessions cover business-focused aspects of the job including a session on generating new work that includes case studies from partners on clients they’ve brought in and how they expanded their business.

The new partners also learn what to expect from the end-of-year partner review process, where senior partners review their work for the year as part of the compensation decision-making process. That session was especially helpful for Duran who wasn’t sure how much information to provide or in what format.

“I realized that they have to do 900 of these meetings so it’s important to be concise and show them the numbers,” she said. “That insight was very useful.”

What I Wish I’d Known 

Knower also added a lunch-and-learn panel where partners who have been in the role for several years answer questions about their experiences and what they wish they had known. “They talk a lot about the importance [of] managing their time and dealing with clients and how they learned to hold themselves differently as partners,” Knower said.

These are things they learned over time through observation and trial and error but new partners now have the benefit of learning these tools right away. “A lot of the panelists say they wish they could have sat in on something like this,” she said.

After the February session, Knower continues to reach out to new partners on a monthly basis and hosts events and one-on-one sessions throughout the year. In April at the annual partner meeting, she organizes a welcome reception before the first dinner and arranges a group coaching session to reinforce their networking skills before walking into a hall filled with hundreds of their new peers. “It positions them to have a more positive experience,” she said.

She also creates Facebook pages for cohorts where partners are encouraged to share personal stories, pictures and hobbies as a way to cement their relationships.

In between the events, each partner has monthly business development coaching sessions to help them improve their business development skills and create a plan for landing new work.

Working individually with a coach ensures each partner can focus on their unique skill gaps, specialty area and presentation style. “We don’t want them running around looking for any new piece of work,” Phillips said. “The coaching helps them find what they are comfortable doing.”

While it’s hard to measure the business impact of the coaching, Phillips has seen its impact in action. He’s made several presentations this year with a first-year partner and each time they’ve worked together Phillips has noticed his skills improving. “There is a new crispness to his presentation style that he lacked in the beginning,” he said. “The coaching helped him see the virtue of getting to the point and that has upped his game.”

Duran has also seen value from her coaching experiences. She often turned to her coach with questions about specific decisions, like whether she should write an article to promote herself as a thought leader or how to effectively navigate a conference to make more meaningful contacts. “Because the feedback was private and specific to me, it was more applicable than if we had done 12 group coaching sessions,” she said.

Knower also creates opportunities for the new partners to come together as a cohort. “We want them to build connections so they call on each other when they need support,” she said.

Confidence Soars

Even when there is nothing planned, Knower continues to send reminder emails about upcoming events, and she makes a point of meeting with each new partner face-to-face or virtually once a month to be sure they are getting the support they need.

The added support appears to be having the desired effect. Knower’s team surveys new partners three times per year — when they are promoted, after orientation and at year-end — asking them to rate how well prepared they feel to handle specific aspects of being a partner. Every year the numbers jump after orientation and continue to grow through the year.

Results from 2016 showed new partners’ confidence in understanding cash flow and tax payments increased 38 percent between the first and second surveys and 43 percent overall. Confidence in the annual partner self-evaluation form increased 44 percent between first and second surveys and 45 percent overall, and confidence in the partner review and compensation process increased 71 percent between first and second surveys and 81 percent overall.

“The numbers show this program has been invaluable to the partners and to the firm,” she said.

The program has been such a success that Knower is now looking at creating a similar support structure for midcareer associates promoted to senior associate.

“Whenever people move into leadership roles it’s a new frontier,” she said. “We want to give them the confidence, skills and support they need to be successful.”