For senior associates up for partner, firms have become increasingly focused on business potential and less so on an associate’s ability to outclass others in the courtroom or at the negotiating table.
In the days of yore, the partner track in Biglaw was oftentimes a reward for consistent competence and professionalism. In an era of PPP and RPL, most firms (other than the Cravath, Quinn, or Simpson Thacher types) are less likely to promote associates unless they see real revenue-generating potential.
If you find yourself in your fifth to tenth year and are unsure whether you will make partner, here are four steps to help you steer your career…
1) Evaluate. First evaluate where you stand in terms of making partner. There are several indicators that can tell you if you are on track to make partner.
If you have perfect or nearly perfect reviews, then you are likely on track to make partner. If you have a close relationship with partners within and without your practice group, this also bolsters your candidacy. If you are in a practice group that is busy without too many associates in your class year, you have a better shot than if you were one of many in a deep bench. If you have any business, then you are ahead of the curve. Finally, if you have strong billable hours and are selected to work on firm-wide committees or programs, the firm is probably looking to you as a loyal companion.
The economy has a lot to do with your chances as well. As of today, it is a good time to be up for partner as a real estate associate, while not as good of a time as a pure bankruptcy partner. Your practice and promotion are at the mercy of business cycles, unless you can retool to another practice by predicting economic trends.
Another thing to look at is your firm’s leverage ratio. If your firm has high leverage, you will have a harder time making partner because of the glut of associates. There is no standard measurement for determining your odds of making partner. In New York there are about 444 real estate partners and 517 real estate associates in the Am Law 200. The overall leverage for Biglaw real estate in New York 1.16. This does not mean you have a sure-fire chance of making partner. Some practices are slow growing and with the continual influx of new associates every year and the slow retirement of older partners, leverage by itself can be a misleading predictor of partnership opportunities in an overall practice. If you see your firm has a high leverage ratio for your practice, slow growth and not many outgoing senior partners, it may be helpful to look elsewhere.
Furthermore, if your firm rarely promotes a large partner class or eschews partner promotion for lateral partner hiring, then it may be helpful to consider one that gives you a better shot.
There are many options if you believe that partnership is an unlikely scenario for you.
2) Look In-House. A Biglaw partnership is not the only way to pay off that school debt. Many attorneys prefer the stability and challenge of in-house practice. However, many attorneys mistake stability to mean easy. Working in-house can be just as, if not more challenging, than working at a Biglaw firm. Working in-house may entail working on dozens of deals at once without a team of junior associates or paralegals. In-house hardly deserves its reputation as a stress-free practice. Not to say all in-house positions are this way, which is why it is important to evaluate each company and in-house legal department, before making generalizations.
3) Look To Serve. Another option to consider is public service. Like myself, many attorneys received their undergraduate degree in political science or a related field. Law school may have recalibrated our trajectory, but public service can lead to prestigious jobs, which in turn can lead back to partnership. Every election cycle there are a plethora of senators, representatives and counsels who march down Capitol Hill and up K Street to take up a job as a partner at an Am Law 200 firm. In the legislative branch, 148 representatives and 52 senators listed law as their prior occupation. There are plenty of opportunities in public service ranging from federal prosecutor to counsel.
4) Look At Other Firms. If you are looking to stay in Biglaw, but don’t see light at the end of the tunnel at your current firm, then look laterally before it is too late. Contrary to nearly every other job market, the more senior you get as an associate, the less attractive you are to other firms as a lateral. Because your lateral value has diminishing returns the more senior you get, you should start thinking about these issues as a fifth-year, when you are at peak marketability. The nuances among firms and practices even within a firm make it almost impossible for associates to make an educated decision here. That is why you should leverage the information of insiders or good recruiters to guide your decision. For example, when a partner like Jesse Sharf at Gibson Dunn has an opportunity for a fourth-year associate to join his thriving real estate practice, that’s one you need to consider even if you are otherwise not on the market. To find out why, you can ask Josh Lockman.
Just because your firm does not make you partner does not mean you are not partnership material. A good recruiter will be able to tell you the overall trends of the market and will be able to help you find the right fit for you to lateral up. Here at Lateral Link, our recruiters include Larry Latourette, a former managing partner of a major Am Law firm, Ed Wisneski, a former partner at an Am Law 100 firm, and Deanne Ozaki, the former head of trademarks at Universal Music Group. We are happy to help you make an informed decision with your career.