William H. Herndon (1818-91).  Law partner to Abraham Lincoln — and later his harshest critic.

Congratulations.  You made partner.  Hooray.  Woo-hoo.

But consider:  does becoming partner really improve your looks?  Does it make you smarter?  Turn you wiser?

Er.  Not really.  Not at all, really.

The big change is a new, kinda sorta mystical, bond between you and your partners.

Guess what? That connection makes you more attractive, brighter, and sager.  Because now you can call on the strengths of the whole partnership and every one of the partners in it.

Got that?  Your strength equals your partners’.

Which realization ought to lead a newbie partner to continue — redouble — cultivating the high opinion of her new sisters and brothers.  The newbie indeed needs more than anything to become a good partner-sibling.

Note the good.  Not great.   Why?  Because greatness sets the bar too high.  A great law partner knows you and loves you as your mother does.  A great law partner wants only the best for you and will sacrifice his own interest to benefit you.  A great law partner will let you keep all the money.  A great law partner, in short, either doesn’t exist or carries the honest title of associate.

So what makes a good law partner?

Do the job.   Doing the job may seem obvious, but plenty of partnerships fall apart because of partners who don’t do their part.  In trial work, that means persuading clients and opponents, judges and juries, and your partners (see Thank You for Arguing:  Relevance of Rhetoric below).  But doing the job only incidentally touches on running the firm.  Let the managers, especially the professional ones, handle that.

Look out for each other.  In About a Boy (2002), the title character realizes that a family needs at least one "backup" in case "someone drops off the edge".  Now, some will say that law partners — unlike fictional movie children — don’t need law firm mommies and daddies.  Fair enough.  But think of your partners as  brothers and sisters, older and bigger ones who’ll watch your back but will also keep you in line.

Accept differences.  The law partnership between Abraham Lincoln and William Herndon endured more than two decades — and yet these two men differed enormously.  As the author of Lincoln and Herndon (1910) wrote:  "No two men were ever more unlike in temper of mind and habits of thought — which was, no doubt, a secret of their long friendship.  Lincoln was a conservative, Herndon a radical . . . ."  Plus Herndon waited until Lincoln died to question his legitimacy and brand him an atheist.

Share.   Lincoln made Herndon a 50-50 partner.  As Herndon later related:  "I was young in the practice and was painfully aware of my want of ability and experience; but when he remarked in his earnest, honest way, ‘Billy, I can trust you, if you can trust me,’ I felt relieved and accepted his generous proposal."  And of course the paternity and atheism stuff came much later. 

"Partner" comes from Middle English parcener — a word signifying "joint heir".  The idea of kinship and common heritage survives.  New partners, more than any other, ought to embrace the meaning.

Barry Barnett

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