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Surviving in the Legal Profession Without Making Partner: What Your Career Path Might Look Like

published March 07, 2023

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 40 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
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BCG Attorney Search is the nation's largest and most geographically diverse recruiting firm specializing exclusively in permanent attorney placements. They currently have more attorney openings, in more practice areas and locations, than any other legal recruiting firm.

For attorneys and legal professionals, making partner is often the goal. Reaching this level means a higher salary, increased respect, and the potential for future career advancement opportunities. But what happens when an attorney doesn't make partner at their firm? What options do they have to continue their legal career and where can it take them?

The answer to this question will depend largely on the attorney's experience and specific circumstances. For attorneys who have been with the same firm for many years, the options may be limited. However, even then, it is possible to find new opportunities either at the same firm or in a different legal setting.

For attorneys who do not make partner at their current firm, they may consider other options, such as going in-house or working for a non-traditional legal company. In-house positions are specific positions within a company or organization, and allow attorneys to work directly with clients and business partners to advise on matters related to their particular industry. Non-traditional legal companies specialize in providing legal services to smaller and mid-size businesses and can provide attorneys with opportunities to gain experience in a different area of law.

In addition to in-house and non-traditional legal options, attorneys may also consider taking on a consulting role. Legal consultants work as independent contractors and assist companies or organizations with short or long-term projects. This type of role can provide attorneys with the opportunity to explore a new field of law or leverage their existing legal experience in a new way.

Finally, attorneys who are having difficulty getting promoted may consider attending law school or an advanced legal program, such as an LLM program. Advanced legal degrees can provide attorneys with the knowledge, skills, and qualifications necessary to advance their careers. Additionally, attending law school or an advanced legal program can open doors to new and exciting opportunities that previously may have been unavailable.

No matter the situation, there are options available to attorneys who do not make partner. The key is to stay open-minded and explore the various paths that could potentially lead to more fulfilling and successful legal careers. By exploring these options and staying current on industry trends, attorneys can remain competitive in the job market and find professional satisfaction no matter their career path.

The Possibilities After You Don't Make Partner

Though making partner at a law firm is the long-term goal of many attorneys, not everyone reaches that goal. But that doesn't mean you must give up your career in law. There are still plenty of opportunities for growth and advancement even if you decide not to make partner. In this article, we will explore other paths that you can take if you don't make partner.

Build A Robust Career

If you choose not to make partner in the law firm, you can still build a robust career in various areas of the legal field. You can pursue a rewarding in-house career, either as an in-house counsel for a company or a governmental entity, or you can specialize in a field of law such as family law or tax law. You can also choose to open your own practice or join a smaller firm.

Pursue Business Opportunities

If the law is no longer calling to you and you don't want to remain in the traditional legal field, there are several other career paths you can pursue. Having a law degree open doors to all kinds of business opportunities. You can use your legal knowledge to start your own business or become an entrepreneur or consultant. You can also explore opportunities in finance, real estate, or even politics.

Catch Up in Networking

Networking is one of the most important skills you can develop in the legal profession, and if you don't make partner at a firm, it's a great opportunity to put more emphasis on this activity. It is essential to start building relationships with other lawyers, either at your current firm or at other firms. Networking can also help you keep your career moving forward and open up opportunities for new challenges and freedom.

Gain Practical Experience

Gaining practical experience is another way to add value to your legal career if you choose not to become partner. You can pursue further academic credentials or specialized certifications, such as a master's degree in law or a certification in dispute resolution. You can also take a teaching role or become a practicing mediator. All of these options offer excellent opportunities to learn new skills and gain valuable experience to add to your legal resume.

I have spent 7 years at the same law firm and I haven't made partner. Where can I take my career at this point? Do you leave? Are my chances of making partner anywhere greatly diminished? I really would like to continue law firm work and not have to work at a corporation.

It is hard to tell based on your question whether you are anticipating the possibility of not making partner someday, or have actually been passed up for partner at your current firm. Either way, you should remember that the partnership track is different from firm to firm. You reference spending 7 years with a firm. Some firms do make decisions about partnership after 7 years, however, many firms have partnership tracks based on 8, 9, 10 or 11 years. At a firm with a track of 10 years, it would not be at all unusual to be a 7th year associate who was not yet up for partner. In that situation, the fact that you aren't a partner would not be any indication that there is something wrong with your lawyering skills or your professional development.

Preparing for Partnership. However, if the partnership track at your firm is 7 years (as I suspect it may be, based on your question), it may be an indication that the firm does perceive that there is something lacking. Your work may be excellent, but it may be that you have not developed any business, or have not shown enough management potential. Of course, that's entirely speculation. Regardless of why an attorney does not make partner, it would be highly unusual for a lawyer to spend his or her career with one firm, and over the course of seven years, not get any feedback on whether the firm felt that the associate was 'on track' for partnership. In essence, your path to partnership should be fairly well defined both by you and by the partners at your firm. If you start considering what the issues are surrounding the partnership track for the first time after 7 years, you are coming a bit late to the game.

You stated that whether a lawyer makes partner is not necessarily an indication of that lawyer's abilities. Again, depending on the firm, that is probably true. Some firms hire many associates, and only intend to give a relatively small percentage of those associates offers of partnership. In these cases, it is not unusual to not be elected partner, and as such, is generally not an indication that an attorney is not skilled.

Passed Up For Partner? Reevaluate. What do you do if you don't make partner? Let me answer your question in two ways. First, a lawyer who doesn't make partner at 7 years should immediately set about finding out what his or her firm's criteria are for making partnership decisions. 'What is it that I can be doing to prove to you that I am worthy of this position?' should be the first line of dialogue. It may be that a firm wants to see more business development. It may be that there are concerns about the lawyer's work. In any event, it is not sufficient to sit back and simply wait to hear whether you will ever become partner. Although you would have ideally started dealing with these issues years before, there still may be time to define what hurdles you need to jump to get where the firm wants you to be.

Life Outside Partnership. In the event that the firm's management has made it clear that you will never be a partner, should you leave? That depends. Are you happy and fulfilled at the firm? Are there alternative designations or titles that might make you happy, such as 'of counsel' or 'senior associate?' In that event, there may very well be every reason in the world to stay with your firm. Many firms accommodate senior attorneys who are not partners, and those types of relationships are often quite successful. In fact, there are many attorneys who would rather practice in this sort of a role than as a partner of the firm.

However, if it is your goal to become a partner at a law firm, and your current firm isn't going to provide that opportunity, you may want to try to switch firms. Whether you can readily change firms depends on any number of factors, including your location, your practice area, and your portable book of business. In our experience, a portable book of business is the single most important issue for many firms looking to bring on a senior level associate. Without portable business, whether you can readily move from firm to firm is really dependent on a variety of other factors. In any event, we believe that attorneys should focus on partnership issues as soon as possible. Most firms begin reviewing associates 4-6 years into their practice specifically with respect to whether the associate is capable of becoming a partner in the firm. You should strive throughout your associate career to find out what benchmarks you need to be meeting in order to reach that goal. If you do not reach that goal at your current firm, all is not lost, and you need to evaluate how you would fit into another law firm practice in the future.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit

published March 07, 2023

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 40 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.