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Associates Hop Firms Seeking the Partner Track

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With lockstep compensation, annual evaluations, and an "up or out" philosophy, most firms seem to dangle partnership in front of new hires like an inevitable carrot. The assumption that the carrot could and would be reached within a given number of years keeps many senior associates in place; others become disillusioned and begin to consider a lateral move to a firm where the opportunities for advancement are more concrete.

In fact, many associates will never be offered partnership in the firm, and those who are may have to wait as long as nine years. The criteria for partners at most firms have been criticized as mysterious and arbitrary, and levels of partnership limit a firm's accountability to even long-term employees.



Now, many associates are increasingly unwilling to submit themselves to a capricious system of evaluation and are hopping firms in record numbers in search of the brass ring of partnership.

According to Carey Bertolet, a recruiter in the New York, NY, office of BCG Attorney Search, "I have certainly seen this situation, where people change firms for the opportunity for partnership and even take pay cuts to be better positioned.

"I like to talk about it in terms of 'predictability.' Many associates, if they can't accurately predict whether they are going to make partner, move somewhere where they can predict their likelihood of promotion. I've also seen the reverse, where associates don't move, don't make partner, and feel 'stuck' because they haven't thought about what they would do if they didn't make partner at their original firm."

Law practice management consulting company John P. Weil & Company published several articles on the subject of the partnership track.

In one of these articles, the author notes, "All too often, there is no organized program of performance evaluation that allows regular review of the professional growth and development of firm associates."

The Weil article goes on to state that the late 1980s saw a shift in "waiting periods" for partnerships, from between four and six years to as many as seven to nine years in larger U.S. firms.

"Managing partners found that the historical expectation of new associates of 'we only hire potential partners' was simply unrealistic and could not be met profitably. As the legal profession entered the decade of the '90s, the harsh reality of many ineffective management practices, which had been hidden from discovery under record-setting revenues, came home to haunt their users."

The rampant over-hiring that was seen during that period, writes the author, led to massive lay-offs of associates. The next observed trend was "unprecedented levels" of lateral moves as senior associates searched for the firms that would encourage their career development.

With regard to the firm-hopping phenomenon, the author writes, "Usually the prime or stated reason for a move is either economic (more money) or some ill-defined dissatisfaction (poor management). Rarely does a lateral move solve another problem."

Undoubtedly, this kind of mismanagement spells disaster for associates. However, others are sympathetic to the firms' point of view.

Joel A. Rose & Associates, Inc., is another management consulting firm specializing in law firm management and legal economics.

In an article on evaluation criteria, Rose noted, "More firms are operating in a 'lean and mean' mode and are interested in retaining partners and elevating those associates to partner status who are exceptionally bright, possess a high level of legal intelligence, and capable of 'retooling' quickly to work in diverse practice areas, in teams, or multi-client matters."

Rose also notes the importance of considering associates individually rather than as a class.

"The value of an associate's services and contribution to the firm cannot be determined with mathematical certainty nor can their overall performance be measured or described in terms of metes and bounds, yards or meters, or any other precise unit of measure more suitable to an artisan's caliber…. The reality is that some associates do certain things better than others; thus, each must be considered as an individual."

This ideology is in marked contrast to that which allows for the lockstep model of associate compensation seen at most firms. In the last weeks of 2005, many U.S. firms announced the first across-the-board raises in associate salaries since 2000; these increases had everything to do with economic factors in the market and nothing to do with individual merit.

Many, Rose and Weil concluded, have proposed that firms use clear, concrete methods for evaluating associates and determining eligibility for partnership and perhaps even eliminating tenure-based compensation structures.

One mid-sized West Coast firm requires that associates who wish to become partners meet certain predetermined criteria, such as "consistent high quality of performance" over a period of years, a specific yearly average of billed and collected hours, a demonstrated ability to expand the firm's clientele, and certain management skills such as leadership, networking, supervision, and training of paralegals and junior associates.

"If more firms would follow these suggestions," says the Weil article, "the current turnover and turmoil among dissatisfied associates and partners could be reduced.

"Everyone needs a clearly defined goal or statement of purpose for effective personal and professional growth. It is incumbent on the law firm to provide this clarity of purpose to each member of the staff."

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