That is both an easy and not an easy question to answer.
It is easy if the individual works at a firm where he has been given a chance to be a rainmaker (bring in clients) and then will be judged based on that ability. Rainmaking is extremely important in a partner. Since partners are given a percentage of the firm’s revenue, they obviously must be supporting that revenue by bringing in more clients.
However, at many medium to large sized firms, associates aren’t really let loose to do rainmaking until they are partners, in which case, obviously they are judged on different things.
Here are a few (not necessarily in order):
Most firms set hourly expectations, especially large firms. This is because, unless a firm takes contingency cases, firms make their money based on hourly billing. These days, medium-large to large firms tend to set that requirement at 2000 or more hours per year. Keep in mind, this excludes non-billable things such as keeping track of your hours, networking, and so on. People who make partner tend to go over their required number of hours.
Quality of Work
The quality of work an associate performs is extremely important. Does he write well. Is the work done quickly. Is his work accurate.
When a new associate joins a large firm, the better his work, the more likely he is to get work assigned to him by partners and senior associates. This, in turn, gets him noticed. Someone who is noticed for good work has a better chance of making partner, and also, is more able to meet and exceed his hours.
Does the associate cause problems? Does he fit in to the firm’s environment? Is he the type that people think will make a good rainmaker?
Politics follow us everywhere, including at work. This includes the ability to make partner. Firm politics can be difficult and confusing. An associate can upset the wrong partner, be unaware of it, mess up his chances and never know why. Not fair, but reality.
Associates at large firms work very hard and very long hours. They need to not only work hard, but be seen as working hard. This leads to the issue of face time. Butts need to be in the seats for long hours. In some firms, working virtually (from home) is a very bad idea, because the partners won’t see you in your office when they walk around.
If the associate is given the opportunity to communicate with clients, are the clients happy? Does he get along well with clients? Has he upset any clients? Have clients said, I like this person, I want to work with him. This type of communication will become more frequent as the client works his way up to senior associate. It is an indication of how the associate will be at bringing in and retaining clients in the future.
Some firms do not want their associates to focus on networking. They want the associate at work. Other firms encourage networking. This would be activities in the bar association, speaking at events, or perhaps making other important connections. Ability to network speaks to the ability to make rain.
What all of this comes down to, whether at a small firm or a large firm, is the attorney’s reputation. At a large firm, the partners who make the decision as to whether an associate becomes a partner, will be looking at evaluations and trusting the views of those who have worked with and encountered the associate. Some firms are large enough that the partners making the decisions will never have met or even heard of the associate but for a paper trail of reviews. At smaller firms, the partners will know the associate, at varying levels, and will have their own opinion as to whether the associate deserves partnership. So reputation is key.
In the end, the issue is this: will the associate help this firm make money if we make him a partner. If the answer is yes, the associate will probably make partner. If the answer is no, unless there is something exceptional about the associate, he won’t.