The Partner Track: Dare You Proceed?

by Nicole Weber | November 14, 2013

The American Lawyer recently published its 2013 New Partner Survey, shedding light on how it really feels to reach the supposed Holy Grail of BigLaw. The survey gathered responses from nearly 500 attorneys at AmLaw 200 firms who joined the partnership ranks between 2010 and 2013 and asked them to rate and comment on various criteria including compensation, how well their firms prepared them to be partner, and general career satisfaction. Two-thirds of the respondents were men. Partners holding non-equity (or income) status at their firms comprised 59 percent of respondents, and the remaining respondents were equity partners.

As it turns out, partnership does not disappoint, at least for the majority of participants in the survey. Most reported overall job satisfaction, with 85 percent reporting that their firms adequately prepared them to handle the demands of partnership. On the financial front, 62 percent were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their compensation. Yet while 82 percent saw their compensation increase after becoming partner, 10 percent were “not at all satisfied” with their compensation, with one respondent reporting that besides the title, “‘There isn’t much else that’s good about income partnership.’” According to AmLaw, “[c]hanging firms early in one’s career continues to be a viable path to partnership” and almost half of the new partners surveyed “said they switched employers before being promoted, with most of them making the move at least four years before becoming partner.”

How do BigLaw associates’ views on partnership compare to AmLaw’s data from those who have actually achieved it? We took a look at the results of this year’s Vault Associate Survey to find out. The Vault survey asked associates to rate their current career outlook, including promotion and/or exit opportunities, on a scale of 1 (“worst possible outlook”) to 10 (“strongest possible outlook”). Here’s what we found:

  • Men are more optimistic than women. Male associates in BigLaw scored their career outlook at an average of 7.837, while women’s average rating was 7.657. This result is consistent with AmLaw’s survey, in which female partners (30 percent of respondents) reported a longer path to partnership. While only 66 percent of women made partner within a decade, 80 percent of men were promoted to partner in that time. AmLaw’sdata also showed that fewer females than males felt adequately prepared for the job, expected to be rainmakers, or had been asked to lead a team. Female partners pointed to gender bias and cronyism among factors that had led to job dissatisfaction.
  • Lateral associates are less optimistic than homegrown associates. Despite what AmLaw’s findings suggest about changing firms as improving chances of making partner, lateral associates appear less sanguine about their career outlook than do home-grown associates. The average career outlook score for laterals was 7.594, while 7.766 was the average for attorneys who were initially hired as summer associates.
  • Newbies have the brightest outlook. Call them naïve, but first-year associates rated their career outlook at 8.196, though just every year thereafter associates felt their prospects dimming. Not surprisingly, ratings for career outlook dropped dramatically when associates hit their tenth year – the rating for associates at that level or above was 6.599, compared to 7.501 for ninth-years.
  • Clerks also see the glass half full. Associates who joined their firm as the result of a merger or acquisition are the least confident about their future (average score of 7.361), while those who joined after a clerkship are the most confident (average score of 7.974).
  • Practice area matters. Among practice areas, some of the highest ratings come from associates in energy, trusts & estates, tax and IP; the lowest among those working in executive compensation/employee benefits, antitrust and bankruptcy.

The ratings Vault collected from associates on partnership prospects and exit opportunities determined our list of Top Firms for Career Outlook. Coming in at #1 was Williams & Connolly, where one associate remarked:  

If you are interested in becoming a partner, the chances of making partner here, while of course small, are much, much better than at any comparable firm. The firm takes seriously its commitment to developing associates into potential partners, and partners come exclusively from the associate ranks (i.e., no laterals).

Wachtell ranked #2 in the Career Outlook category, with one associate commenting that “Because the firm is small, once you are hired, your chances of making partner are much higher than at larger firms. With a small firm, there is less chance that your abilities will be overlooked, or that you will lose momentum taking years to get noticed.” At Paul Hastings (#5 for Career Outlook) an associate told us: “Promotion to partnership is difficult, but there are many opportunities to go in-house or to move to a smaller firm.” Not a bad idea. As AmLaw’s study determined, “Plan or no plan, almost half of the new partners surveyed agreed with an assumption widely held among associates: Making partner is nearly impossible.” To see Vault's full list of Top Firms for Career Outlook, click here.

The moral? Associates should keep thinking about those exit opportunities, because that’s the route the vast majority will eventually take. But those few who toil away for years and ultimately make partner will likely find that it was worth the battle, at least in the honeymoon phase of their newly attained status.  

Read More:
Survey: New Partners Feel Well-Prepped and Well-Paid (AmLaw)

Filed Under: Law


Adjusted Expectations: 5 Women on Big Law, 12 Years Later One Interview Question You Should Definitely Ask

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