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I am an associate in a big NYC firm. I'm getting great experience and as much, or more, responsibility as my peers in other BigLaw firms. While I definitely work hard, I feel like my personal time is respected as much as it can be. I do really like it here. I'm having a great experience, I'm well regarded, I've gotten good reviews and I find the work pretty stimulating. I don't have anything to complain about with respect to my job or my firm. (Obviously, I can't stress that enough.) I do have a question, though. The firm hasn't put anyone up for partner in my group in the last four years. In addition, there are a good number of people more senior than I am in my group. I definitely do want to make partner someday and I want the time I spend working hard to be time spent working toward that goal. I want to be loyal and stick it out to see where I'll stand when the time comes, but I'm a little worried about the prospect of that. Should I be thinking about making a move to another firm now, or waiting to see what happens?
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Let me start by acknowledging what an important (and probably difficult) question this is for you to be considering. I commend you on the amount of thought you've put into this and your early focus on achieving your goal. I have spoken to many associates who aren't sure what path they'd like their career to take even after years of practice. Kudos to you for thinking this through early and also for looking around you and starting to evaluate your circumstances at your current firm. At this point, since you are wildly happy, it might seem like you have a lot of time to figure it all out. And, perhaps you do. But, it can never hurt to start asking the tough questions early. It can only help you get and stay on the right path. Good for you.
The short answer to your question, as you may have guessed, is that it really depends on many factors. Your current class year is one factor. The reason why your firm hasn't put anyone up for partner in your group in four years is probably the biggest factor. The number of people in line for partnership ahead of you is yet another one. These are all important things to consider when deciding whether to stay or to move on from your current firm. I don't have all of that information, so it is impossible for me to give you my full opinion on your situation. I can walk you through the things you need to consider to figure it out, as well as the questions I'd be asking you if we were having this discussion and working it out together.
If you're a junior associate, you have a little time to figure out what the partnership opportunity really is in your group, and decide what you should do with that. My reasons for saying this are simple. Associates typically are put up for partnership in their 8th or 9th year of practice. In order to be considered for partnership, you'll need to spend enough time being evaluated by the partners you work for and the partnership committee at the firm where you are practicing. Usually, there is a minimum requirement of three years of practice with a firm for a lateral candidate to be considered for partnership, but more time is certainly better. In order to be elected to the partnership, you'll have to be very well regarded by the partners not only in your group, but within the firm as a whole. That takes time to achieve. If you do end up deciding to make a lateral move, the sooner you decide to do so, the better positioned you will be for partnership at that firm. If you are a mid-level or senior associate (more senior than a fourth year associate currently), you have far less time and need to make a quicker decision, for the above stated reasons. Your 6th or 7th year it is a little late to start thinking about whether your current firm is the place where you can make partner. I know that sounds a bit harsh, but many very bright attorneys bury their heads in the sand when it comes to their careers. I've had too many friends and colleagues who have stayed with their firms because they decide "I'll-just-wait-one-more-year-to-see-how-things-go." I'm not saying that is you, and actually I gladly acknowledge that is not you. I say this to you now because I want to make sure you understand that if you decide that it is prudent to remain at your firm to see how things go in the short term, that make sure to resolve the issue as shortly as possible.
Turning to the questions you'll need to be asking (yourself, and to the extent possible, others) to figure out what your best course of action is right now- you have to start by trying to ascertain why your firm has not put anyone up for partnership in your group for four years. Is it possible that in four years there haven't been any appropriate candidates? Are any of the people who should already have gone up still with the firm? In what capacity? What representations did the firm make to them regarding their situation? I realize that some of this information might be difficult to obtain. You're not going to just walk up to the head of the group, or someone you think may have been unjustly passed over, and just ask. But, maybe you could ask a partner or senior associate you trust about it and see what information you can discover. If there have been viable candidates every year for four years, the problem must lie elsewhere. Is it possible that the reason is economic? In the last four years, has the group been profitable enough to make another partner? What about the firm? Are partners being made in other practice areas? If there doesn't appear to be any financial reason for not making a single new partner in your group for four years, could the issue possibly be a political one? The answers to these questions will help guide your decision. In my opinion, since you asked, if the problem is likely financial or political, and you can't be certain that it will be resolved by the time you should be considered for partnership, you probably should at least start considering your other options. That may not be the ideal answer, but making a lateral move to a place where you know you have the potential to realize your goal is better than staying where you are and hoping for the best.
Another factor for you to consider – how many people in your group are in line for partnership before you? How many people are in the classes senior to you? How many of them, in your opinion, have at least as solid a chance at partnership as you feel you do? Is there currently a backlog of people from the last four years? Will all of those people need to be considered before you can be? Keep in mind that a firm can only make so many partners in a year, and only so many people from each group. The market will certainly take some of those people out of the line, as there will undoubtedly be lateral moves before you come up for consideration. But if there are a lot of people in front of you, you may not be able to be considered for partnership on time.
What now, you ask? Hopefully, I was able to help you make a decision about what you need to do to resolve this issue in the short term. If you decide that it is prudent to remain at your current firm in order to figure more of this out, just please make sure that you keep yourself on track. Keep your eyes and ears open to your surroundings and always be evaluating your potential for a future there. I also think it is a good idea, even if you're going to stay at your current firm for now, to start opening your ears and mind to the possibility of a plan B; moving to another firm. Start listening to what is out there. Start doing some research into other firms with your practice areas, the substance of those practice areas and the potential for partnership there. Prepare yourself for the possibility of a lateral move, just in case you do need to make one. The best consumer is an informed one (or so I hear) and if the time comes for you select a new firm you'll want to be informed.
If you decide to embark on a search, make sure to do your diligence and you will find the right professional home. Find and use a good recruiter. I know that sounds self-indulgent and self-serving, but it is just practical. A good recruiter understands the market and will be able to thoroughly discuss the firms that you should consider, will be a true advocate on your behalf and a helpful resource for you in this process. Make sure that you meet anyone you're seriously considering working with. (And, for more assistance, take a look at the column written by my colleague, Stephanie Wechsler, which was published on Vault on February 27, 2008, entitled "Headhunter Need Not Be a Dirty Word: How To Find a Headhunter You Can Trust.) As I said in the last paragraph, start researching the firms that you think might be a fit for you. Make sure you talk to your recruiter about all of the firms that you're interested to get his or her opinion and available market information. Finally, always remember your goals and your priorities. You know what is important to you and what you're looking for in your next firm. Your priorities may change in importance, but you must never lose them entirely.
I want to let you know that you can call me to discuss this anytime. I'm here to be a sounding board and help you figure out what steps are best for you. I'm not going to advocate you do something that isn't in your best interest. If there is anything more I can do, please don't hesitate to ask me.
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