You are considering moving from industry into a senior role in practice. Perhaps you started your career in practice? But what do you really need to know to take a fully-informed decision to move into practice at a senior level, perhaps even at partner level? In this blog post, Heather Townsend, author of ’How to make partner and still have a life’, explores the realities of being in practice and how this may compare to your current role in industry.
The client always comes first
The first rule of being in practice is that the client always comes first. No clients = no practice. Yes, clients and their demands will be the bane of your existence, but that’s life in practice. Everything in practice is geared towards providing a high quality service to clients so that they want to buy more from the firm. If client service is not your thing then I’d strongly counsel against moving into practice.
Be prepared for long hours
As the client always comes first this can lead to periods of long hours. As a rule of thumb the hours in practice are often longer on average than in industry. If a deal is on or you are in your audit busy period then expect to find work regularly encroaching your weekends and evenings.
It’s not just chargeable work which can invade your free time in the evenings and weekends when you are in practice. It’s also the requirements to build and maintain a high quality network. Therefore expect to be at networking events and ‘socials’ far more frequently than when you were in industry. It is not uncommon to be networking or meeting people before or after work 2-3 nights a week when you are a senior fee earner in a practice.
Clients, size of client portfolio and who you know, are what brings you influence in a firm
Who are the most influential partners in a practice? Typically the partners with the biggest clients and biggest client portfolio. It really is that simple. As well as the size of your portfolio, it’s all about who you know. Of course, who you know is a big determinant of how fast your career will progress in industry. However, within practice who you know is so much more important than if you were in industry. Get the backing of influential sponsors and mentors and your career could fly in practice, even if you are not the most talented professional in the team.
Are you comfortable with ambiguity?
Professional practices don’t describe themselves as ‘corporates’ for a good reason. They don’t think or act like most medium-large sized corporate organisations. For example, profitability figures may never be shared beyond the partnership group. The firm’s strategy, if they have one, may be at best woolly and more aspirational rather than actually being implemented. It is not uncommon for pockets of a firm to be dancing to their own tune rather than the stated firm strategy.
Very often a professional practice is described as a series of small businesses all operating under the same roof with the same brand name. In effect each partner is running their own practice. Now the extent to which they are operating in isolation to their fellow partners really depends on the firm culture and the individual themselves.
The firm has a matrix structure
Unlike most organisations, partnerships don’t have clear cut reporting lines. Fee earners can potentially be used on any piece of work by any partner in the firm. In fact it is very common for an individual to not have worked on a job for their appraising manager at any particular time of the year. With the matrix structure comes cliques, power bases and toys being chucked out of the pram. Of course everyone wants the best fee earners on their jobs, but not everyone can have them. The person who gets their ideal team on their work is often the one who shouts loudest or who has the greatest influence in the firm.
Be prepared for massive egos
All types of individuals are attracted to a career in practice. However, there are always some big egos in practice. These egos need to be massaged and stroked if you are going to do what you need to do. Often these egos belong to the most highly influential partners. Get on the wrong side of these people and you may find yourself never quite getting into the most exclusive club, I.e. Becoming a partner in a firm.
You will be expected to sell
I know, you didn’t sign up to be a salesperson when you became an accountant. However, the reality of being a senior fee earner in practice is you must be prepared to win work for the firm. This could either be as part of a team or if you have had a very distinguished career in industry, by opening up your little black book of contacts for the firm.
There will need to be a business case before you can join as a partner or very senior fee earner
Your business case is where you demonstrate the commercial advantage to the firm for you joining them. This means that you need to demonstrate within, typically, 6 months of joining that you have started to pay your way. That could either be through the chargeable time you are doing for the firm, or the pipeline of new business opportunities that you are helping your new firm achieve. Your business case can be based upon the relationships you have with decision makers in industry, or the knowledge, skill set and profile in the marketplace you will bring to the firm.
The targets just get tougher
Of course there is no such thing as an easy director or c-suite level role in industry. However, the reality of the professions, particularly the Big 4, Big Law and Magic Circle firms is such that when you achieve a tough target, you’ll typically be given an even tougher target to hit. Fail to achieve the target and you could fall victim to your firm’s ‘up or out’ policy. That’s basically the nature of being in practice.
There may be more travel involved than your current role
As the client always comes first, this means that you may be required to go and see them at their premises, even if they are in a far flung place. The reality of life as a consultant in a professional practice means you WILL be on the road a lot and potentially could be living out of a suitcase.
If you are coming in as a fixed share or full equity partner you will be expected to buy into the firm
The partners in a firm are both owners, managers and players. This means they are both the leaders of the practice and the shareholders in the practice. Therefore, if you are going in as a partner then you will need to invest capital in the firm before you can join. This could be a sizeable lump, i.e. £100k+ – it all depends on how well the firm is capitalised. Most firms will help you arrange a partnership loan to invest capital in the firm. Therefore, before you join do your due diligence on your firm. Will it be a sound investment?
If you are coming in as an equity partner (fixed share or full equity) you will become self-employed
Partners in a firm (as long as they are not salaried partners) are all self-employed. Along with being self-employed comes the requirements to sort out your own pension (your firm may or may not have a pension scheme set up for the partners) and protection, e.g. life insurance, private medical etc.
Life as a senior professional in practice is very different to a senior role in industry. Not everyone is cut out for a life in practice, so before you make the jump do go in with your eyes open.
Heather Townsend is a best selling author and executive coach who helps people make partner in the legal, accounting, and consultancy professions. She blogs on the How To Make Partner website, where you can read many more articles about being successful in practice.
The new edition of the best selling How To Make Partner And Still Have a Life is out in September 2016. It’s been called ‘an absolute must-read (and potential life saver) for anyone pursuing a professional career.’
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Since 2006 I’ve worked with in excess of 7,000 accountants and professionals in workshops, seminars and one to one helping them land their next jobs and become better leaders, presenters and business partners. Before that I spent 25 years in accountancy climbing the career ladder from Payments Clerk to FD. I’m a CIMA Fellow, Certified Professional Coach and Team Coach Facilitator.