Skip to main content

Law Partnership

What Does It Mean, and How Do You Get There?

Law Partnership

Dreaming of the day you’ll be offered partnership at your law firm? There’s more to consider than the big money partners make, warns Marc Zamsky, senior vice president of Hudson Legal and a legal recruitment specialist in Hudson’s Philadelphia office.

“Partnership can take on many forms, and there are many considerations that go into whether you should become a partner, where you want to go into partnership and what partnership holds for your career,” says Zamsky.

The Track Layout

The typical partnership track lasts between seven and 10 years, beginning with the summer associate position. Next, you’ll go from first-year associate to senior associate and finally on to partner.

How many lawyers make the cut? About 121,500 attorneys worked at the National Law Journal (NLJ) Top 250 firms at the end of 2006, says NLJ spokesman Lee Feldman. “Within that group, there were roughly 37,500 equity partners and 84,000 associates and nonequity partners,” he says. “So, over time, roughly 30 percent have eventually made partner for this group. But that doesn't mean that on any given year, 30 percent of associates are going to make partner.”

Zamsky estimates that half of associates hired by small firms eventually become partners. Their average salary might be $80,000 or $90,000. Partners at the NJL Top 250 firms earned a median income of $1.5 million in 2005, Feldman says.

How to Make Partner

To stay on the partnership track, make yourself valuable and likeable. Bill no fewer than 2,000 hours a year, produce well-written, accurately researched work and hone your instincts in your niche practice area, says Andrew Jewel, vice president of national operations for Hudson Legal. A dash of political savvy and the ability to get along with everyone from paralegals to partners also help.

The most important item on your to-do list is business development. Hard-working, legally astute attorneys who bill lots of hours are easy to come by, Jewel says. Those who can do legal heavy lifting, retain existing clients and find new business are the ones valued as partners.

You’ll know if you aren’t making the cut by your third year as an associate, Jewel says. “They may tell you that your work product or billable hours aren’t what they hoped,” he says. If that happens, look for work at a new firm before it’s too late.

Find a Guide

Stay too long at a firm where you’re not considered partnership material, and your marketability will go down, Zamsky warns. “Begin networking while your marketability is still high,” he suggests. “Asks friends, clients and business associates for referrals to recruiters they like and respect.”

A good recruiter will help you figure out your options. Even if you’re not looking to move, it’s good to be in a recruiter’s database and on his call list as a networking source. “The recruiter will pay you back when a great job comes up that’s perfect for you,” Zamsky says.

Equity or Nonequity?

If you make the partnership cut, make sure you understand what’s being offered. Know the different layers of partnership at your firm, how the profit pie gets sliced and when it will be served. Many firms pay partners a draw and then make distributions to partners quarterly or annually.

Most large law firms offer two forms of partnership: equity and nonequity. An equity partnership is a true partnership, so you’ll need to fund your buy-in. Equity partners own a portion of the firm’s assets, including real estate, as well as its liabilities, explains Jewel.

“Firms that want to reward their associates with the partner title and prestige without diluting their ownership offer nonequity partnerships,” Jewel says. With a nonequity partnership, you participate in profit sharing and gain the prestige of the partner label, but you don’t own a share of the firm.

Once You’re a Partner

Don’t expect the big bucks to roll in the first year. Once you’re a partner, if you’re no longer an employee, you may have to pay your own benefits and file a partnership tax return. “The first year in partnership, your actual take-home pay can be lower than your pay the last year as a senior associate,” Jewel warns.

Once you’re in the club, pay extra attention to backroom deals, which committees have the most power, who supports which factions and who backstabs whom. “Because you’re now a business owner, your money and your company are being affected by those factors,” Zamsky adds.

Making partner means working harder than ever. “The rewards are greater, but you have to work for them,” Zamsky says. “The pressure will be on to run your practice, to participate in firm management, to deliver service to clients and always to bring in new business. More is expected of you.”

Education programs to fit your profession