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The Partnership Dilemma and a Moment of Clarity [Jamie Barnes] Partnership is the ultimate goal for many attorneys - but what happens to those attorneys that wait it out at a firm and never move beyond the senior associate level?

The Partnership Dilemma and the Moment

lawyer cannot help but ask him- or herself

and the attorney’s position in it. To be an

of Clarity We see it all the time: A graduate of Yale or Stanford Law or wherever joins a highly regarded international law firm in New York City or Los Angeles. The lures are spectacular: Name brand clients known worldwide; Powerful senior partners, a few of which may even be media figures; back-up support staff to dream for -proofreaders, legal assistants, schedulers; plus fellow lawyers equally brilliant and success-driven. For all-work-and-no-play achievers, such an achievement is like landing in Heaven. All that hard work has paid off.

the following questions:

associate is, in a sense, to always remain in a form to indenture to the firm’s partners. This

1. Am I cutting it? And just what is required

may well be tolerable through the first, say,

to ‘cut it.?’ Am I up to this and can I keep it

four years, when the attorney is establish-

up for 30 years?

ing work habits and developing skills to

2. Do some partners prefer working with

last a life time. But such indentured status

certain associates? If so, what are these as-

begins to grow somewhat stale as the typical

sociates doing that I’m not?

associate begins to run a docket of cases

3. Which types of practice and which partners

with minimal partner supervision. Attorneys

seem to hold the most power?

typically report what can only be described

4. Which partner might become my mentor?

as a moment of ‘clarity’ somewhere between

Will any partner ever take on this role with

the end of their third and beginning of their

me? How do I get the process rolling?

sixth years.

5. Which associates seem to be making the

The panic, if it can be called that, sets in

most headway?


6. And if certain associates do seem to be making more headway, why is this happen-

The attorney has begun to realize that the

You may not recognize the panic, or it

ing? What are they doing that I’m not doing?

senior partners he or she works with every

Or, what am I doing wrong?

day are not gods, and that most of the work

7. How can I stand out from the other associ-

is routine and does not require a brilliant,

ates without causing some sort of backlash

break-through intellectual analysis. In short,

from them?

the romance is gone. What is left is a future

8. Finally, how long will it take me to make

stretching into decades filled with ‘more of

partner? What are my chances? Who is likely

the same.’ The attorney realizes that he or

to be my primary competition?

she is just as competent as everyone else but

may rest just beneath the surface of your conscious life. This panic is centered on the uncertainty of a young lawyer’s life. The firm’s standards may at times seem impossibly high. A typo on a document might send a pantheon of powerful partners into a fury. The hours can be long. A client might want

has flaws. Perhaps these flaws have to do

something overnight. There are partners

with social-interaction skills. Perhaps there

with no private life, spending all their working hours at the firm. There appear to be no benchmarks other than hours billed -and the more hours the better. Stories circulate, such as: At X Firm, one senior associate billed 3,100 hours his eighth year and another billed 2,950, the associate with the most billed hours making partner and the other lawyer forced to leave the firm. Such a story may be merely apocryphal but serves to highlight the overriding importance of billable hours. In this type of environment, a


The Moment of Clarity

Metaphorically Moving From Hell to Heaven

is a lack of connection with certain partners that may prove to be harmful. Perhaps the

Being an associate in a large firm can be

attorney finds it impossible to bring in new

pleasant when a collegial atmosphere exists

business. Perhaps there is a relationship

nurtured by partners, associates, support

with another associate that causes daily,

staff and clients. If an attorney lands in a

gnawing resentment. What the Moment of

practice area which he or she finds intellec-

Clarity amounts to is a combination of sum-

tually stimulating, so much the better. But

ming up one’s experience in the firm and a

even if the work situation is optimal, there

simultaneous dropping away of the veils of

remains doubt lying just below the surface,

expectation, idealization, hope and promise.

an angst that concerns the unknown future

One’s life and one’s position in the firm is

continued on back

1.800. 973. 1177


seen simply and starkly for what it is.

One can become an unrivaled expert in some narrow but revenue-producing corner of the

The Search for Legal Nirvana

law. Clients with specific types of problems will be drawn to the firm because it has a

What rests behind this Moment of Clarity

reputation for solving them. The associate

is the contrast between what one’s life has

with expertise in this field will get the bulk

become and what an individual seeks, which

of this new work or have an important say in

is complete control over one’s life. Such

how this work is conducted. One can bill more

freedom, if there is indeed such a state, is in-

hours than his or her competition (other asso-

stinctively sought, and this complete freedom

ciates in the same class). One can get visibility

is envisioned by most associates as earning a

outside the firm by serving on commissions

partnership in a big firm. Getting a partner-

and boards. One can marry the managing

ship offer is the problem. There are no rules

partner’s daughter or son. One can watch as

to follow, no G.P.A. to be achieved, not LSAT to

other associates jump ship and hope that he

pass. Instead, political skills, sheer determi-

or she will be the last one standing at the end

nation and billable hours come into play. It

of eight or so years.

may seem unfair that having run the gauntlet of high school grades, SAT, college grades,


LSAT, law school G.P.A., law review, federal clerkship, and acceptance by a name-brand

Okay, so you’ve got big-time angst. You don’t

firm, the battle begins with new rules not cast

know what to do. Here’s a solution. Let the

in stone. These rules, as undefined as they

situation play out. The worst that can happen

are, seem to call upon one’s ability to form

is that you must leave big-firm life and try

bonds and deflect criticism. They seem to

for happiness at a medium-sized firm. You

involve outworking everyone else. They seem

might not make partner or find happiness

to involve who can parlay enough family and

there either, but you are more likely to keep

other contacts into billable clients. And what

your job and develop a life outside the firm. In

does any of this have to do with being a good

such a scenario, the trajectory of your life is


dictated for you by outside forces. Not a pleasant thought. On the other hand, everyone’s

The problem with the associate’s search for

life is dictated by outside forces, even those

ways to make partner is that just running up

who stayed behind at your prior firm and

the most billable hours is not enough. On the

made partner. For instance, they will die at a

other hand, bringing in several million dollars

moment not likely to be of their own choos-

of business and being able to keep at least

ing. In the meanwhile there will be deaths in

nominal control of it would certainly guaran-

the family, divorces, possible disappointments

tee a partnership -or, as a Plan B, the ability

with children and other unpleasantness. The

to move elsewhere with clients in tow. If one

key is to be content with a combination of what

can achieve this, the associate’s personality

you have achieved and what is forced upon

conflicts inside the firm, if any, become less

you. Partnerships are not at the center of such


considerations. You only think they are if you allow the culture of the law firm to dominate your thinking. It is in the Moment of Clarity

But What If A Lawyer Doesn’t Want To Be A

that you can gain a new perspective. Happi-


ness won’t likely be the result, but a sense of calm and acceptance will make the rest of

What then? Can one still make partner without bringing in clients? Yes. There are other ways.


your life that much better.

The Partnership Dilemma and a Moment of Clarity  

What happens to the attorneys who wait it out at a law firm and never move beyond the senior associate level even when partnership is the ul...

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