Ask most associates and (if they’re honest) they’ll tell you: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Or a dollar today is worth three tomorrow. You’ll “never” make partner, so better to gun for prestige, compensation, a practice you love or some combination of the three, then escape into an in-house career before it’s too late.
Looking at the stats, the majority of associates, oftentimes chasing the immediate gains mentioned above, will lateral a little less than once every three years during their law firm careers, which is to say your average associate (factoring not only those who make partner but also the vast majority who don’t) will be on his or her fourth job before even being eligible to make a run. Needless to say, chances of partnership under such circumstances are an insignificant percentage of miniscule at best, which is why it is important to make only the “right” move (assuming you need to move at all). As an aid to your decision-making, we’ve compiled a list of six things to consider when planning your long-term path to partnership and any lateral moves you might make as an associate.
1) Name brand and size aren’t everything. There’s no substitute for experience. Although it is true that many law firms require a track record of business generation or associated skills and abilities, it is equally true that legal expertise must come with. Many associates plan on making partner at smaller elite firms, and it is precisely these firms that require, more than most, the expertise and experience on which the successful retention of clients and your partnership prospects are based. In this respect, size is often key: you want a firm that is sizeable enough that it has significant support staff (so that you’re not burdened with or, God forbid, relegated to paralegal work), but not so large that other associates crowd you out from getting real hands-on experience.
2) Firm prestige ≠ Practice prestige. Politics may be king. Firms differ in their structure and the distribution of power within partnership ranks. One firm may operate its practices in clearly defined silos, each of which represents its own power base and profit center, while another is more collaborative across practices, encouraging the sharing of credit and the more equal exposure of associates across practice groups to partners of influence. If you’re considering a firm using the former model: who will you be working with? When it comes time to seek support for your partnership bid, which “power centers” will be behind you? For those considering firms of the latter kind: entrepreneurialism, initiative and personal merit factor in that little bit more. Are you the necessary kind of self-starter to make life at such a firm work for you?
3) Who’s your competition? Believe it or not, answers to this question can range from “other associates” to “other partners” at your current or intended firm, and it is important not to be misled by reference to past partner promotion statistics. Has the firm recently promoted or brought in senior associates and/or counsel? If so, you may be facing some pretty hefty odds at best. Are partners at the firm barely pushing 55? Has the firm recently jettisoned its mandatory retirement policy? If so, you might be in for a longer ride than you had bargained for. Yes, partners lateral away (and often, these days). Still, do not forget that succession plans are paramount.
4) What’s their poison? The above notwithstanding, statistics are always worth a quick look. A major question to be asked is the following: from where does the firm in question tend to source its partners? From the ranks of its associates? From those of other firms? Perhaps even from outside partners and counsel? In a brief sample from 2013-2014, approximately thirty of the Am Law 200 firms filled 66% or more of their partner vacancies via lateral acquisitions.
Over the same sample period, around one in three firms lateraled in partners over 50% of the time rather than promoting partners.
Seventeen firms are lateral averse, meaning all their vacant partner spots were filled via promotions. Over the same period only two firms failed to promote any partners.
5) Don’t forecast the entire decade. In the current climate, you’ve no doubt noticed it’s difficult enough to forecast just one year—think of all the surprise mergers over the last year—never mind the next eight or ten. Firms can rise and fall quickly—Dewey, Howrey? Anyone? Instead, while you’re doing what you can to make the right friends and gain the right experience, make sure, too, that your current position offers a strong foundation and positive growth: a good platform from which to explore partnership opportunities elsewhere if necessary.
For those considering these things: danger signs of firm failure can include sharp drops in PPP, unsustainable leverage, multiple years of gross loss (if not offset by a rise in PPP) and poor profit margins.
6) What’s your endgame? When evaluating your career choices, it’s important to determine your ultimate goals. If you plan to get out of Biglaw and work in government, then choosing a prestigious firm with lobbying practices makes sense even if there are no partner vacancies. Similarly, if your goal is to transition into an in-house role, you can eschew promotional opportunities when choosing your firm. However, if your ultimate goal is to make partner: sketch a rough map of your career and always be mindful of how present actions impact the future, and take those three dollars tomorrow if you can afford it. A partnership will pay more dividends than any associate bonus ever could.