An Attorney's Path From Associate To Partner In 4 Years


As featured on Law360

At Canadian law firms, it generally takes an associate at least eight years to make partner. But Rachel Puma, a lawyer with the commercial real estate and development group at Robins Appleby LLP in Toronto, was promoted last month from associate to partner after just four years.

"I've always wanted to be a partner, but at first I didn't expect it to be so quick," she told Law360 Pulse.

However, over her last two years at the firm, Puma said not only did she put in the billable work for clients, but she took on a more managerial approach to the practice as well — such as trying to improve certain efficiencies within the practice group.

"I have wanted to be a lawyer since I was 6 years old," she said. "In first grade, I would stay in from recess to do logic games with my teacher instead of going out and having a life. I've always been really, really interested in this kind of way of thinking. I'm very lucky that I came into a profession that I love."

An Entrepreneurial Attitude

Puma began her legal career as a summer student at Robins Appleby before joining as an associate in 2019. She tried out tax work, trust and estates, wills, litigation, corporate and real estate work as an articling law student. In Canadian law, an articling student is a law school graduate who completes a training term — lasting 10 months in Ontario — of trying out different specialties after summering at a firm and then comes back as a lawyer in a particular field. She discovered her niche was helping clients through the complexities of the Ontario real estate market.

She now specializes in providing advice and counsel on commercial real estate law, including acquisitions, dispositions, financing and development of low-rise subdivision lands and condominiums. Her clients include financial Institutions and small local business landlords or tenants.

"I found that I love the tangible nature of real estate," she said. "Anyone in real estate loves that you can physically have the bricks and mortar that you're working with and that at the end of a development project, you actually have something physical to see from it. I also find people in the industry, including my colleagues, are all very entrepreneurial and they take a little more risks maybe, or have more of a go-getter kind of attitude."

Puma said her clients seem to appreciate her entrepreneurial attitude.

"I really care about the business behind it," she said. "Giving legal advice to actually apply that to their business, and knowing their business model and what their risk tolerance is, I think, a very important part of our job."

Puma said she also thinks her clients appreciate her honesty when she doesn't have an immediate answer to one of their queries.

"A lot of lawyers get very concerned … [that] because they're a lawyer, they must know everything," she said. "My clients appreciate that they know if I tell them something it's going to be correct and if I don't [know], I'm going to tell them I don't and not risk them making an error or not judging the risk, and I'm going to get back to them the next day with that answer. My clients trust me, and they like that they can trust me."

Puma credits her mentors, particularly Robins Appleby managing partner John Fox and partner Leor Margulies, who is the head of the firm's commercial real estate and development group, with helping pave the way for her rise to partner.

A Born Manager

Fox said when the firm interviewed Puma she came across as a thoughtful and hardworking person — two key things he looks for in a successful lawyer. Over the course of her time at the firm, she's carried those qualities with her in her work. "She is constantly hardworking and has applied herself to the craft of being a real estate lawyer with a true passion, and if I were to list all the things I think you'd need to do, she would have checked them all off in a relatively short period of time," he said.

Fox said Puma's path to partner is the shortest he's aware of at the 35-attorney firm.

"In four years, it was pretty clear that she was coming equipped with a natural managerial skill set, which will help her do things like manage a condominium practice where it's not just about the law," he said.

Fox added that the firm allows its lawyers to have time to evolve to a place where they have a really credible case to be a business partner. That means understanding the guts of the trade of being a real estate lawyer, such as how to talk to other lawyers and clients about a transaction in a way that allows that transaction to close, dealing with a tense environment, and delivering contracts that will stand the test of time.

Another consideration in a potential real estate partner is, are you able to handle a whole bunch of information and a whole bunch of purchases converging at a similar point in time, as well as a team that is working with you?

"You wouldn't have picked that out of an interview from a law student," Fox said. "But over the course of the four years she was here, it was becoming evident that she could handle that kind of role. It would have been possible for her to just tread water and not actually attempt to make a real change. But she did it. I don't honestly think she knows how to tread water. I think she only knows how to swim. So that's what she was doing, and it's very impressive to all of us."

Puma impressed the leadership team when she joined the firm's Precedent Committee, which is responsible for a database of which precedents the firm uses.

"The Precedent Committee is not exciting," Fox said with a laugh. "And it had — before her being there — kind of been seen as sort of a crappy job that everybody gets to do. And she turned that on its head and made it a role with influence."

A Sense of Loyalty

Puma said she doesn't feel as if her gender helped her or hurt her in her path to partner.

However, she said she has had a sense at times that certain clients and lawyers at other firms were a bit taken aback that a young woman was negotiating a huge real estate deal.

"I negotiate with senior partners at other law firms who maybe don't appreciate having someone argue who is very young," she said. "But really overcoming that is just knowing that this is an internal bias, it has nothing to do with me. And every time they see how hard I work and the quality of the work, then that kind of fades away."

Puma manages job stress by using the gym as therapy, making sure to schedule a few days a week for Pilates — or at least the sauna or a walk.

"If I'm not doing something, then my brain will run through my to-do list, so having that focus is great," she said of exercise. "In the summer, I go to a lot of concerts. It just takes your mind off things and allows you to be present."

But there is no getting around the fact that being on a fast track to partner track means putting in a lot of work.

"There's going to be really long nights — all lawyers go through it — and unfortunately, you have to love what you do," she said. "You're not going to put in the hours that you need to get the experience and the knowledge that you would need to then start running your own practice in this short of a time period if you don't put in double the work that some of your colleagues may do."

Puma said another tip she'd give associates is to have a sense of loyalty to your current firm. "I would consistently tell my team: 'I'm never leaving. This is where I'm supposed to be. This is my place. This is my family,'" she said. "Whereas a lot of people said, 'Just leverage your knowledge and your experience and get a raise or maybe go somewhere else,' and I don't think that's an appropriate thing to do.

"If you want to be part of a business, you need to be a partner in that business. So if you're planning on being a partner, you need to show some loyalty and some partnership with the company. And I know that's hard to do when you're still an employee, but I think that was very helpful for me."

Puma's day-to-day working life hasn't changed much since her promotion. "There's a reason they made me a partner, and it's really because I was doing all the things a partner did at year three or four," she said. However, Puma added that her relationship with clients has changed for the better.

"I've always had quite a good relationship with my clients, but I think there's a greater level of trust to have that title and to have that acknowledgment from my peers," she said. "Especially when you're working with the head of a development company, I think they prefer working with a partner and someone that they have that external validation from, so that's been helpful."