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by Carter Isham | September 20, 2023


When they think about a career as a lawyer, many law students and even first-year associates imagine they’ll join a law firm, work hard, and after some defined period of time, be rewarded for that hard work by making partner. Thirty years ago, that was true across most firms, but the path to partnership has changed significantly in the last few decades. There are still those firms that hire intending to bring everyone into the partnership—even a number in the Vault 100—but others build their partnership through a mix of internal promotions and lateral hires, and some fill their partnership ranks primarily through lateral hires. There are, of course, alternative career paths, like in-house roles or counsel spots, but for those who are set on making partner, four key considerations are highlighted here.

Firm Partnership Structures.

The original model for law firm partnership is a single-tier equity partnership—where partners own a piece of the firm and, rather than a salary, take home a share of the firm’s revenues. Profit-sharing models for equity partnership range from equal sharing across the board to distribution based on seniority to distribution based on origination credit, each resulting in a very different take-home amount. Equity partnership also generally requires buying into the partnership, so you may want to set aside some of those annual bonuses.

In addition to equity partners, many firms have added a non-equity tier to their partnership structure in recent years. Non-equity partners gain the prestige of the partner title but generally still receive a regular salary and do not buy into the partnership, and thus do not share in the firm's success (or failure) like an equity partner. Non-equity partner may be a stepping stone to equity partnership, an alternative destination to equity partner, or even serve as both, depending on the firm.

Specific Firm Considerations.

Some examples of this include—but are not limited to—whether you need a book of business and, if so, what the revenue minimum is for that book; if you need to be an active member of any committees or affinity groups within or outside of the firm; if there are publication expectations; if the firm looks back at hours billed in addition to annual reviews; and, what the timeline is for making partner. Each firm will have its own set of considerations for hard (e.g., strong past reviews) and soft (e.g., good people skills) factors.

Business Development.

As a junior attorney, business development may look like boosting your client-facing interactions and attending practice area events and conferences to grow your network. As you progress in your career, and depending on your practice and your firm, business development can range from bringing new clients into the firm to establishing yourself as the relationship attorney for a longstanding client to establishing yourself as the primary attorney for a current client in a new practice area (for example, handling a corporate matter for a litigation client). Use firm mentors and the partners in your practice group to determine what is expected in order to best direct your efforts.

Career Development.

The group that names partners in your firm—whether a committee or the whole partnership—needs to know who you are in order to consider you. Producing quality work product and garnering strong reviews are foundational to this, but you’ll need to go beyond that to make partner at most firms. Internal networking with attorneys of all levels helps ensure those voting know your face and your name. Consider joining firm committees or affinity groups, engaging in pro bono efforts, or participating in a mentorship program. Highlighting yourself and your expertise through publications and public speaking opportunities will also help raise your profile, as will external networking at conferences and bar associations.   

If you’re reading this as a first- or second-year associate, an early awareness of these considerations will let you plan your limited ‘free’ time over the next six to eight years. If you’re further into your legal career and haven’t poked your head out of contracts or motions too often, you’ll want to think strategically about business and career development to maximize your chances of success. For both groups, firm partnership structure and specific considerations are critical to understand as those may determine whether you strive to make partner where you work now or need to consider a lateral move to achieve that goal. To all endeavoring to join the ranks of equity partnership, good luck!