The Newest Big Law Partners Speak

, The Am Law Daily

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Steven Harper

A recent survey of associates who became partners at Am Law 200 firms between 2010 and 2013 produced some startling results. The American Lawyer's headline proclaims that these lawyers “ feel well-prepped and well-paid.” But other conclusions that can be drawn from the survey are troubling.

Consider that more than half of the 469 attorneys responding to the survey (59 percent) were non-equity partners. That’s significant because the real hurdle for these attorneys has yet to come. Most won’t advance to equity partnership in their firms. But even beyond that data point, an unattractive portrait of the prevailing big law firm business model emerges from the survey.

Lateral Progress

It should surprise no one that institutional loyalty continues to suffer as the leveraged big law pyramid continues to depend on staggering associate attrition rates. According to the survey, almost half of new partners said that “making partner is nearly impossible.”

It’s toughest for homegrown talent. Forty-seven percent of new partners switched firms before earning their promotions, with most doing so within the previous four years. An earlier Am Law Daily survey of 50 Am Law 200 firms made the point even more dramatically: 59 percent of those who made partner at those firms began their careers elsewhere. Long ago, a lot of older partners became wise to this gambit. They learned to hoard opportunities and preserve client silos as the way to move up and/or acquire tickets into the lucrative lateral partner market.

Somewhat paradoxically in light of their lateral paths into the partnership, 90 percent of new partners thought that commitment to their firms was of great or some importance as a factor in their promotion to partner. Yet almost 60 percent said that, since making partner, their commitment to the firm had decreased or only stayed the same.

Why Don’t They Feel Like Winners?

More than 80 percent of respondents thought the “ability to develop and cultivate new clients” was “of great or some importance” in their promotion to partner. Yet more than half of new partners said that they received no formal training in business development.

Other survey results also suggest that a big law partnership has become an increasingly mixed bag. Almost eight out of ten respondents said their business development efforts had increased since making partner. How did they make room for those activities in their already full workdays as “on-track-for-partner associates”? Eighty-three percent reported that time with their family “had decreased or stayed the same.” More than half said control of their schedules had decreased or stayed the same. Making partner, it seems, doesn’t help attorneys achieve the kind of autonomy that contributes to career satisfaction and overall happiness.

The Meaning of it All

Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of new partners were satisfied or very satisfied with their compensation. Maybe money alone will continue to draw the best law graduates into big firms. A more important question is whether they will stay.

Most partners running today’s big firms assume that every associate has the same ambition that they had: to become an equity partner. They conveniently forget that they’ve been pulling up the ladder on the next generation. Leverage ratios in big firms have doubled since 1985; making equity partner is now twice as difficult as it was then. Does anyone really believe that the current generation of young attorneys contains only half the talent of those that preceded it?

The law is a service business. People are its only stock in trade. For today’s leaders who fail to retain and nurture young lawyers, the future of their institutions will be grim indeed. As that unfortunate story unfolds, they will have only themselves to blame.

Then again, if these aging senior partners’ temporal scopes extend only to the day they retire, perhaps they don’t care.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2013), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of this column was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

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