Law Firm Look: Partnership

How Optimistic Are Law School Grads About Their Success on the Partnership Track?

To start, almost every associate considers the possibility that someday, they may find themselves on the enduring road that eventually ends in partnership.  However, few know when the promotion to partnership will happen and even fewer know exactly what it takes to navigate that process successfully.  However, what is clear is associate who are promoted to partner are happy and satisfied that they persevered through that long process.

Partnership Satisfaction

For example, in 2013, in its New Partner Survey, The American Lawyer surveyed roughly 500 lawyers at AmLaw 200 firms. These attorneys became partners between 2010 and 2013 and 59% were considered non-equity or income partners at their firm; The remainder were equity partners.  Indeed, as they reviewed these attorneys and their personal satisfaction, the New Partner Survey found that associates who were promoted to partnership found that joining the partnership ranks fulfills a life-long dream and was a reward for their years of hard work and sacrifice. Indeed, a great majority of them indicated overall job satisfaction – 85% of the participants believe that their firms gave them the right training to manage the workload that comes with partnership.  Financially, 62% of the participants claimed to be “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their compensation.

Although it may not seem intuitive, if an associate is interested in pursuing partnership ranks, it may be smart to make a lateral move to another law firm. According to The American Lawyer, switching firms towards the beginning of one’s career seems to be a feasible way to achieve partnership. Roughly half of the practitioners said that they changed firms before rising up in the ranks through a promotion. In fact, a great number of them made the decision to lateral to another firm as a mid-level associate, about four years before they were elevated into partners.

In contrast, however, partnership is not for everyone. Although, 82% of the respondents saw their compensation rise after claiming the partner title, ten percent were “not at all satisfied” with the compensation that they were receiving.

Associate Satisfaction and Partnership Outlook

So, given that recently promoted partners generally are satisfied/happy, what does this mean for associates and recent law school grads?  How optimistic are law school grads about their success on the partnership track?  How do associate feel about law firm life?  Do current associates want the rank of partner? How challenging is that quest?  Research shows that most associates, understanding that there are tradeoffs with that choice, are reasonably optimistic about their chances.

According to the 2013 Vault Associate Survey (where associates rate their present job outlook), typical first-year associates’ career outlooks were rated as an 8.196. The scale used is based upon one being the worst potential job outlook, while ten indicates the best potential job outlook.  Unfortunately, however, associate satisfaction or happiness ratings began to decrease significantly every year after the first year. The rating for associates who were at their tenth year or beyond was at a low of 6.599.

Further, if gender is evaluated, associate dissatisfaction tracks even higher.  Although male associates were generally satisfied with their lives as associates and the possibility of partnership, female respondents believed that associate life was more difficult and that they had had a longer journey towards partnership. The Survey’s data reveals that only 66% of women associates became partners within 10 years while 80% of men associates rose to partner in that same time frame.  Additionally, male associates in BigLaw had an average perspective of 7.837 in the belief that they will have a good professional future. In contrast, females had an average career outlook of 7.657. The rationale behind this piece of information could be because women have indicated that of gender bias/discrimination has negatively affected their job satisfaction.

Another factor that contributes to an associate’s future outlook is his or her specialization or practice area. This aspect makes a great difference in the level of optimism.  The Survey found that some of the best ratings come from associates in the areas of trust & estates, tax, IP, and energy as these associates were comfortable with the long-term prospects for substantial work.  However, the Survey also found that associates working in antitrust, executive compensation / employee benefits, and bankruptcy also had some confidence in their future prospects for billable work.

Indeed, associates who were promoted to partner felt empowered and proud as a result of their success, but that that feeling of success did change and decrease over time (Weber). In fact, after the initial feelings of “empowerment” wore off, new partners and associates feel the same way in considering their future.  And, although promotion to partnership may be considered the Holy Grail for some associates, the vast majority will take the exit road and will not fulfil the quest.  As a result, as the economy and the legal industry continue to change and evolve, all attorneys, at any stage of their careers, whether partner or not, to manage those impending feelings of uncertainty or dissatisfaction, should have some long-term career planning or exit strategies in the back of their minds.

In sum, overall, the title of partner feels good to certain associates and the hard work that is needed to accomplish such a feat ends up feeling worthwhile. However, the data collected seems to indicate that that “high” will wear off. Therefore, it is crucial for every associate to re-evaluate his or her career and see whether this sought after status is really a good fit.


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Are you a law firm associate considering your partnership opportunities?  Need help planning your own partnership promotion strategies?  Do you need to make a lateral law firm move?  Learn more about open legal industry opportunities with a Search Consultant from Lexacount Search’s Legal Group.  Or, if you need assistance in managing your career development and navigating your path to a law firm partnership, contact a Career Counselor with Lexacount Search’s Career Consulting Services.


Works Cited

Weber, Nicole. “The Partner Track: Dare You Proceed?” Vault Blogs| Vault, 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.

By Lexacount Search

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