After Graduating from Law School, How Long Does Someone Need to Practice Before Becoming a Partner?

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We asked attorneys throughout the U.S. one question. After graduating from law school, how long does someone need to practice before becoming a partner? We received several opinions that should give law students an idea of how long it will take before becoming partner with a firm. Some attorneys noted that it depends on the size of the firm and what type of work ethic and qualities the individual brings to the table. One attorney pointed out that it is much harder to become a partner today than it used to be. What do you think? Share your response in the comments below the article.

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The simple answer is, 'it depends'. The main factor is where you go to work after law school. I started my own boutique practice so I was immediately a 'partner'. My friends at large law firms found it could take as long as 10 years to make partner, IF they made partner. Many attorneys do not put in enough time or build a large enough book of business to become an equity partner at a large law firm. They may take a non-equity position or become 'of counsel'. If you work at a mid-size or smaller firm, the economics are different and you may be able to become a partner at an earlier stage of your career. If you distinguish yourself from the competition, work hard and build a good book of business, you will be in a better position to become a partner sooner, rather than later. Unlike the old days, however (when all the lawyers in a firm were on the firm's letterhead) partnership is no longer guaranteed.

-Steven G. Bazil, Esquire
Bazil McNulty

It depends on the firm where one works. In smaller firms in smaller cities, just a couple years. In big firms in big cities, 15-20 years.

-Shane Fischer, Attorney at Law (criminal defense)

While the average time seems to be seven years for hires directly out of law school, the better answer is that it takes as long as you take to show that you are indispensable and could hurt the firm by moving on. So I've seen some lawyers become a partner within two years (usually when they are handling the majority of the work for an old timer) and others that never get it all. In smaller towns it's not unusual for the time to be shorter. The biggest exception is when nepotism is involved as sons and daughters usually bust the standard timeline, often causing a lot of grumbling (Google Dowd & Dowd v. Gleason).

-Michael Helfand, Attorney at Law

There is no set answer. It depends on the firm they work at. Every firm has their own tracks. In a large NJ firm it could take 5-7 years. And nothing is guaranteed, the other partners need to vote on making partners. If an attorney is not well liked or not seen as a 'go getter' they may never be offered partnership. In addition, someone could become a partner quicker if she has a strong client base or strong political or business ties - i.e. potential to bring in business. Finally, in larger firms, there are equity and non-equity partners. Equity partners usually need to make a substantial cash contribution to the firm, so becoming an equity partner is harder (and more expensive) than a non-equity partner.

-Law Office of Meaghan Tuohey-Kay

I am senior partner of Wallin and Klarich and have been a lawyer for 35 years.

To answer your question.

First, the law student who graduates law school must pass the bar exam in the state where they wish to practice law.

Then if they are hired by a law firm it will depend upon the size of the law firm and how well the new lawyer does as to when and if he will become a partner.

Very large law firms that only hire the very top law students from the very best law schools have a system in place where often a partnership would be offered to many associates after a 7 to 9 year period of time. This assumes that the lawyer has done a very good job in that time period and also is able to bring in new business to the law firm. However, a minority of lawyers that go to work for large law firms every become partner. Many quit because of the very long hours and they often want to do a different area of law or go into private practice.

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If a lawyer is hired by a small law firm, say 5 to 10 lawyers, there is a much better chance they could be made partner in a shorter period of time. This depends upon how well they do as an associate with the firm. If the partners in the law firm are older, they often will be looking for younger lawyers who are very bright to make partner. However, once again, the lawyer's ability to generate new business for the law firm (called a rainmaker) will impact whether they will be asked to become a partner.

-Paul J. Wallin
Wallin and Klarich

Generally 5 to 7 years for junior partner, and 10 to 15 years for senior partner.

-Sean Hannover, esq.
Hanover Law, P.C.

I am an attorney in California who became a partner in my firm within five years of starting. The reality is that there is no hard line rule. Larger law firms typically have a longer track toward partnership. Smaller firms (usually under 200 attorneys) are typically more flexible. In that regard, one is more likely in either a mid or large-sized firm to attain partnership when the attorney has his/her own book of business. If you are generating business, have relationships and create value for the firm, then the firm is more likely to offer you a partnership. In many instances, making partnerships earlier in larger law firms can create conflict. Hence, sometimes the standard number of years (7-9) holds true irrespective of business generated.

-Deborah Sweeney, CEO

There is no formal partnership track, but elevation to partner depends on the associate's experience, track record, client base and other intangibles.

-John M. O'Brien
John M. O'Brien & Associates, P.C.

The answer is a big fat 'it depends.' Some law firms allow an associate to toil away for up to 10 years before they become partners. However, if that associate happens to be a hard worker and a revenue producer and can generate clients because of their social contacts, legal skill or charming personality, they will start lapping their less productive peers on the track. A lawyer who has a solid book of business or can generate work will always have less of a wait than an attorney that does not.

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-Rand Mintzer, Attorney at Law

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