Survey: New Partners Feel Well-Prepped and Well-Paid

In our New Partners Survey, almost half of respondents agree that it's nearly impossible to make partner.

, The American Lawyer

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The View From Higher Up

Making partner in The Am Law 200 is no easy task these days. The hundreds of lawyers who reach that rung tend to share a few key characteristics: They're driven, they have support at home and work, and they know where they want their careers to go. Those qualities emerged from The American Lawyer's 2013 New Partner Survey, our third look at how recently promoted partners see themselves and their jobs. Respondents ranked various factors, including how well their firms prepared them to be a partner, how satisfying they find their new role, and how well they've done at landing their own clients.

This year's survey garnered 469 completed responses from attorneys who began working as a partner between 2010 and 2013. One third of that group are litigators; another 15 percent specialize in intellectual property, and more than 5 percent do corporate work, with the rest split among areas that include labor and employment, bankruptcy, M&A, banking and finance, and tax. Of the respondents, 59 percent are considered nonequity or income partners at their firms, with the remainder holding equity status. Two-thirds were men. For both genders, only 8 percent were single. Most believe that they made partner primarily on the strength of their legal work and commitment to their firm, with rainmaking prowess having at least "some importance."

Highlights from the 2013 New Partner Survey Three-quarters of the respondents made partner after working as an attorney for a decade or less. (For another 22 percent, it took between 11 and 15 years.) [See additional highlights from the survey.]On the whole, surveyed partners reported satisfaction in their new role. In addition to enjoying the challenges of the job, many said they liked the increased prestige and recognition from peers. Most—82 percent—had seen a boost in compensation after becoming partner; 62 percent say they are either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their compensation. A minority, however, complained that their take-home pay actually dropped or stayed the same because of changes in taxes and how pay is distributed to partners compared to associates and counsel. One new partner said that the best aspect of the new job was simply the title: "There isn't much else that's good about income partnership."

A large majority—85 percent—felt adequately prepared by their firms for the job. Most of those who didn't feel prepared cited a lack of training in one key area, business development. "The expectations, specifically how to balance business generation with performing legal work, [have] not [been] well defined," wrote one new partner. "Also, I am basically taking a trial-and-error approach to business development on my own, which does not strike me as an ideal approach."

Changing firms early in one's career continues to be a viable path to partnership. Among the new partners surveyed this year, almost half said they switched employers before being promoted, with most of them making the move at least four years before becoming partner. ( A separate poll conducted by The Am Law Daily noted the same trend among partners promoted at 50 Am Law firms in 2013, with 59 percent of respondents having started their career elsewhere.) As Joi Bourgeois, a legal consultant who works with associates on career development, told sibling publication The Am Law Daily earlier this year, junior lawyers hoping to make partner need to follow a plan—which in many cases involves moving to a firm that offers a better chance at success. "If people are moving," Bourgeois says, "it's because they need a new platform, somewhere that's better suited [for them], or where they can build more relationships."

Plan or no plan, almost half of the new partners surveyed agreed with an assumption widely held among associates: Making partner is nearly impossible. "I can't really offer [associates] any hope of promotion, just encouragement to continue doing excellent work," wrote one respondent. "But that gets old and begins to ring hollow to someone eager to know where they stand and what their prospects are." Not everyone blames the system, though. "Most asso­ciates are lazy and entitled," wrote one commenter. "Hard work, dedication, and intelligence are still avenues to making partner."

Female respondents made up one-third of the surveyed new partners, and some significant differences emerged when responses were broken down by gender. The women's path to partnership was often longer: Some 80 percent of the male respondents made partner within a decade, compared to 66 percent of the women. Fewer women reported feeling adequately prepared for the job than men (78 percent versus 90 percent); only a third of women said they expect to be a rainmaker, compared to half of men; and only 83 percent of women said they had been asked to lead a team on a matter, compared to 93 percent of men. More significantly, of the 115 new female partners who said they weren't satisfied with some aspect of partnership, 30 percent said it was due to gender bias, and 28 percent cited cronyism. (Of the 193 men who said they were at least partially unsatisfied, most said it was not a bias issue.)

When looking ahead to the next 10 years, the majority of the new partners don't expect to be going anywhere: Most said that their goal was to be a valued member of their current firm. Just under 14 percent hope to be a general counsel in 10 years, while 4 percent would like to be a partner in another firm, and a handful of others are gunning for a government job or judgeship. Even though most have no immediate intention of leaving, some 87 percent said they've been approached by a recruiter since joining the partnership. In a legal market that remains uncertain, it's good to have options.

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