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.