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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

August 4, 2017

How much do today’s law firm lawyers care about the “Partner” title?

Julie Q. Brush

Every lawyer today wants to be a Partner in a law firm, right? Wrong. If you look at the different generations of law firm lawyers today, the percentage who place great importance on making Partner plummets by the time you reach the Millennials (Millennials are defined as Generation Y. Birth dates range from the early 1980s to the early 2000s). This is bad news for law firm management.

Historically, making Partner in a law firm was considered to be the attainment of The Brass Ring, the ultimate sign of success in the legal profession. Once you made Partner, you had financial and job security for the rest of your career. Set for life. It’s no wonder associates would give up their lives to achieve this goal. Every lawyer wanted it…every lawyer needed it. It was the great leverage law firms held over its associates.

But today’s younger lawyers possess a markedly different value system than those of their father’s generation. They aren’t willing to put in the blood, sweat and tears for the remote chance to make Partner. The ROI isn’t there and it simply isn’t worth it. They value their other interests more and would happily trade title and money for time. Something most law firms aren’t willing to provide in a meaningful way. These lawyers also have other career options that weren’t as abundant or accepted in years past. They can practice in house, become entrepreneurs, start their own firm or write blogs. The title of Partner has lost its allure and the leverage law firms once enjoyed over its non-partners is quickly diminishing. As a result, attrition is at an all-time high.

There are also the working mothers who, like the Millennials (as a generalization) care more about time than title. These are women are not only bringing home the bacon, managing the kids and serving as CEO of their households (shouldn’t they get three paychecks for that?!). They know that in today’s law firm world, making partner on an 80% work schedule won’t happen. No way, no how. So they choose these arrangements knowing it’s not on the table. And that’s perfectly ok…for now.

So does anyone care about the law firm Partner title anymore?

Absolutely. Being a law firm Partner still carries with it prestige and cache. It is now, more than ever a remarkable achievement that is highly valued among some lawyers. These same lawyers also care about the distinction between equity and non-equity – as each category carries with it differences in compensation, power and influence.

Lawyers who enjoy law firm life and/or who are competitive in this structure still strive for the title and value it. For those who build a strong book of business, a Partner title is very important (as are others like “Head of” “Co-Head” etc.). It’s the recognition lawyers seek and feel they deserve as a reflection of their value to the firm (along with more money). The title also provides business development currency to the outside world. So there is an external importance to it too. Consequently, lawyers strongly believe the Partner title is critical to having the credibility to bring in new clients…a must in today’s law firm environment. Once the Partner title is attained, lawyers hold on tightly to it. For partners who seek to switch firms, only a Partner title will do. Virtually no partner will move to a new firm without the Partner title unless s/he doesn’t have the leverage to do it (i.e. no book).

The law firm world of 20+ yrs ago is long gone. And the desirability of the Partner title, while still valued by a constituency of lawyers and the outside world, is diminishing. Its importance will never completely disappear, but the evolving generational value systems and the changing relationship between law firms and their clients are converging to rock the legal industry. The declining interest in the Partner title is just one consequence of this convergence.

And there will be more to come.

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