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March 10, 2009


Q. Can you give me the basic rundown on the "partnership track" at law firms?

The transition from associate to partner is a long-established process that typically occurs over a set period of time, usually referred to as the "partnership track."

This track can vary significantly from firm to firm and from region to region. It might be a nine- or 10-year proposition as it is in some major cities, or it may be seven to eight years in other places. The larger the law firm, the more this track is a set and inflexible rule. In smaller law firms, the track may be shorter, or in some cases, the advancement to partnership might be made on an ad hoc basis.

The last decade has seen the development of the "off-track" partner. This is an individual who is, in essence, a permanent associate. This person's income will rise over time, but he/she will not become directly dependent on the firm's profitability. No partnership decision is ever made on such individuals, and they do not have the prospect of becoming an owner in the business enterprise that is the law firm.

When a firm passes someone over for partner, they often ask that person to leave the firm. But if that lawyer's services are still valuable, and he is willing to remain in the firm on a non-equity basis, an arrangement as a permanent associate can satisfy both parties' needs. In fact, for some lawyers -- particularly those who stop short of committing heart and soul to the practice -- a non-equity position may even be preferable. Such an individual is not tied economically to the investments and debts of the firm and need not spend the additional time on management issues expected of partners.

What goes into the partnership decision varies from firm to firm, and even under the best of circumstances the result may be unpredictable. Certainly, the quality of work, the ability to work with clients, intra-office relations, and the number of years an individual has put in with the firm have much to do with whether that person is offered partnership. Other considerations may be the overall health of the firm, the number of associates being considered for partner at any one time, the demand for the individual's area of expertise, and some vague intangibles that go under the name of "politics." As with many things law firm-related, becoming partner is neither a roll of the dice nor a predictable event.


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