Monday, October 31, 2005

Most Associates Don't Want Partnership

It is all too rare these days to here someone say, "I just love the private practice of law. It's great!" Perhaps I have been talking with the wrong people, or perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with the private practice of law. My view (based on decidedly unscientific anecdotal evidence) is that it is the latter.

There have been tectonic shifts in the practice of law in the past 10 years or so in a number of key ways. When I graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 1994, most of us assumed our careers would progress on the following path. First, we would land the best big firm job we could. If it didn't work out, then we would shop ourselves down to lesser firms or go into government work (on the premise that it's always easier to shop down than up). But for many of us, the dream was to work hard, make partner at a big law firm, and then be set for life. The work would be exciting, and the money would be superb. I wanted to teach someday, and yet I found this career path enticing in the extreme. I had day dreams sometimes in which I imagined myself retired as the patriach of my little clan, richer than God, with vacation houses in Europe and the Caribbean to boot.

I did ultimately decide to forego private practice's bonanza of cash for teaching. When I announced my departure from my firm, people there were wonderfully supportive and more than a little jealous that I was getting out. That was touching, but I guess not all that surprising. What did surprise me, though, was that many of the junior associates I talked to (at my firm and others) confessed to me that they did not intend to stay with their firms and make partner. Some did, but many did not. In other words, in the 10 short years since I graduated from law school, the presumption among grads at top law schools had shifted from one of trying to make partner to a presumption against partnership. What happened to cause such a massive change?

A lot of things happened, and I will go into them in later postings, but the point for now is that it is a brave and strange new world out there in practice. There are firms that are hiring people they hope will make partner (or some of them anyway), but based on my anecdotal evidence there are a lot of people who don't want that--rather, they just want a few years of experience practicing and a prestigious line on their resume, and then it's off to what they really want to do. That is not an unsustainable model, of course (existing firms get an endless stream of labor that turns over every few years, and the worker bees get that line on their resumes), but it does not match the hiring rhetoric of most law firms. Instead, most firms like to tell you that they only hire for spots they really have, and that they want all of their hires to make partner someday. My old firm told people that, and I believe they meant it. But the point is that it is a message falling on deaf ears. There is a total disconnect between what firms think their new hires want and what the new hires actually want. Unless this gets fixed, the practice of law in private firms will become even more disfunctional than it already is.

One final point is worth mentioning. My private practice experience was in Chicago and D.C. And yet, now that I am located in Mississippi I find many of the same sentiments among my current students and recent grads. So I really think this is a national trend, although it is probably more pronounced in larger markets.

Stay tuned for more postings on this.


Anonymous said...

I think for a lot of young associates (particularly those based in New York City) they begin to realize that their clients are making a lot more money than they are and they are not putting in those horrific hours. So, for many of them, business and the world of entreprenuership seems to be a much better career option. You can get to be a lot more creative, you can work reasonable hours and the payoff can be just as high.

Most traders in NYC work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. and they make more than many of these associates who are pulling all nighters.

Anonymous said...

Not everyone who comes out of law school has a choice. I am not making big firm money, as I work about 50 miles outside of NYC, in a firm that takes advantage of the fact that there are more lawyers than jobs. Every single one of us associates is working very hard to make enough money to support ourselves and our families. The common miscoinception of smaller firms is that we bill less and make less. We work just as hard and have requirements just as strict as in NYC, but we work for less money. Darn right we are going to want to be partner!

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Now THAT is a great comment! Thanks for weighing in. It all really is a matter of supply and demand--as well as a question of what the local market structure is like for partnership. In many areas of the country, making partner is so difficult, and you can make great money without being a partner, so people voluntarily step off the partnership track. In smaller markets it is sometimes easier to make partner, but there's less money in it (and is there possibly a relationship between those twom factors?).

Your comment indicates you are in a market where supply of lawyers exceeds demand. So you make less, but don't work less. And you are not about to walk away from a job that was hard to land. That's an excellent reminder that while we can talk all we want about general national trends, often what matters for you is what is happening in your local market. So thanks for making that excellent point.

Anonymous said...

I would walk away in an instant if I had the opportunity to work for a big firm. I would make such choice because I am an associate who realistically may never make partner despite my efforts. Nonetheless, I believe that if such an opportunity presented itself, I still believe that I would aim at partnership within the big firm.

I agree that supply and demand plays a part in the whole idea that associates now don't necessarily value being a partner. I also believe that there seem to be trends among generations and their work ethics. I went to law school as a career change and as an "older student," then only being only 26. I understand, as someone who held a job prior to law school, that it is going to take hard work to succeed. Easy money passed with the bursting of the bubble. I think once some of these younger associates get some exposure to the workforce, they may realize that no matter what career they choose, if you want a certain lifestyle, you are gonna have to work for it.... or at least that is how I like to see it, even if it is just delusional of me!