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

published June 16, 2014

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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.

-Rand Mintzer, Attorney at Law

Frequently Asked Question

What Does It Mean To Be A Partner In A Law Firm?

Biglaw firms have changed. Equity partners are fewer now than in the past. Lawyers are no longer expected to share in law firm profits. As the legal industry has changed, what it means to be a partner has also changed. Many lawyers at the start of their careers dream of becoming partners. You must, however, understand what it means now to be a partner in today's legal corporate environment if that is your goal.

Most lawyers who attain the position of partner in their firm become non-equity partners. This is a relatively new concept in law. Despite being used since the 1980s, it is really taking off in the current business climate. There are now different levels of law firm partners. Non-equity partners have less job security. Non-partners often have greater job security. Like a non-equity partner, they are not expected to bring the firm a certain amount of business. Non-equity partners can be dismissed from the firm if they fail to generate enough new business.

Non-equity partners are essentially middle managers and equity partners in training. Their salary is higher, and their title is more appealing, but otherwise, they are very similar to non-partner lawyers.

Equity partners, however, do have job security. You are performing consistently at the level your law firm expects, and as long as you continue to do so, your job is secure. As a professional, you have already proven that you are able to perform at a high level and that you have a good reputation in the legal field and the community where you work.

Upon becoming an equity partner, someone is given a loan to "buy-in". As a result, they receive part of the firm's profits in addition to their salary. It usually costs tens of thousands of dollars to "buy-in." Those who can afford to pay it without getting a loan can do so.

Due to the fact that they have a financial stake in the firm, equity partners are more invested in its success. They benefit financially when the firm prospers.

At the same law firm, the title partner can mean different things. According to the position a person holds within that firm and what tier they are on in the company hierarchy, the answer varies. You'll find that all types of partners receive similar benefits, like health insurance, pensions, and other things. However, the move from non-equity to equity is not lateral. Despite its similar title, the position, its perks, responsibilities, and expectations are quite different. The AmLaw 200 firms typically have both non-equity and equity partners. What you become and where you settle in for your legal career depends on your ambitions, financial needs, and goals.

How To Become A Law Firm Partner?

After graduating from a good law school and passing the bar, you worked as an associate for a large law firm. Despite all your hard work, there is still one last brass ring you are aiming for - becoming a law firm partner. In addition to legal expertise, business and marketing savvy are also required to succeed in the partnership track. As a partner in an American law firm, you must stand out from your colleagues in terms of your expertise and ability to attract new corporate clients and enhance the firm's reputation. In an American law firm, becoming a partner typically takes between 5-7 years.

Step 1: Honing Your Skills

1. Specialize in a niche area of law. As an associate, you are probably working in a specific area of your law firm, so you are already specialized. Try to specialize even further, however, to become partnership material.
  • Find out what is missing from the specialty areas your department's partners have carved out for themselves. Do you have any legal questions in which no one in your firm is an expert? You may be able to help out.
  • While big, high-profile cases may seem prestigious, working on them does not do anything to help you stand out from the rest of the associates. Do not take on large cases that turn on small legal interpretations.
  • If available, obtaining additional certifications in your niche can enhance your reputation as an expert in that field of law.

2. Develop a reputation for consistently delivering high-quality work. Businesses are built on the results they produce, including many law firms. If you do not always provide good results for your clients and your firm, you will not be considered for partnership.
  • If you need help, do not be afraid to ask. You will not help yourself if you claim to know how to do something and then do it incorrectly.

3. Identify a partnership mentor early on. You may be assigned a partner to serve as your mentor, but that law firm partnership may not necessarily be the best one for you. Find someone with whom you share a common interest who can guide you through potential pitfalls on the path to partnership.
  • It is ideal to find someone with a similar background to yours. Consider finding a female mentor if you are a woman. You can rely on her expertise to navigate the particular challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field.
  • Having more than one mentor is okay. Mentors outside your firm may also be helpful, especially if you do not seem to have much in common with any of the partners in your firm. They might not help you find a partner, but they can help you grow in your legal profession.

4. Become a volunteer for a niche project. It would be best to speak up when you hear about projects that could benefit from your knowledge and experience to establish yourself as an expert. Do not be afraid to present yourself as an expert in your area and get in touch when a project could use your expertise.
  • If a partner or associate is handling a particular case you have never worked with before, introduce yourself and explain your expertise in the field. Describe how you can be of assistance.

5. Establish yourself as an expert in your field. A good way to increase your chances of becoming a partner is to establish your name as an expert in your specific area, and there are many ways to do so. You can raise your profile by writing articles for law journals or legal blogs, speaking at bar events and seminars, or getting quoted in local or national news.
  • Having your name in a respectable publication can also enhance your firm's reputation and potentially bring in new clients. Readers of your articles may contact your firm when they need legal assistance and ask for you by name.
  • Consider teaching a continuing legal education (CLE) course in your area of expertise through your state or local bar association. The act of teaching CLEs not only establishes your knowledge but also allows you to network with other attorneys in your area of legal practice.

Step 2: Generating Business for the Firm

1. Learn about law firm economics. Even though law school teaches you to "think like a lawyer," it does not teach you much about the business of being a corporate lawyer, particularly at a major law firm. Practicing law will be the best way to learn this. As you better understand how major firms make money, you will discover ways to contribute and increase your firm's bottom line.
  • The most important thing is to understand how your productivity relates to your worth as an associate. You can become a partner if you are making money for your firm as an associate. However, you also need to show that you are doing things to expand that value and ultimately generate new business.

2. Develop a business plan for yourself as an associate. Your work as an associate should be viewed as a business to make money for your firm. Set concrete steps to achieve your goals using the basic business development plan model and present them to your firm's partners.
  • A business development plan shows your senior partners that you are already thinking like an owner, rather than seeing yourself as an employee who follows orders. It shows that you understand the need to build a volume of business to serve your clients and generate a profit.

3. Establish close relationships with your clients. Your clients will notice if you go above and beyond to provide excellent service. Make sure your clients are aware of every step you are taking and ask questions if they have any.
  • Identify any other legal needs your clients might have and find ways you can meet them. You will help your firm expand its business with that client.
  • One day, you might have clients who ask for you by name when they contact the firm. This shows the partners that you have a potentially irreplaceable relationship with that client, making you a valuable asset to the firm.

4. Recruit new clients by attending industry events and functions. You should not only specialize in a law area but also in the industry that you are serving. You can use industry events to market your services to potential client relationships and educate them on legal issues they might face.
  • Your clients will appreciate your understanding of their particular needs and demands. If you know how their business operates, they will feel more comfortable with you.

5. After the case has been completed, stay in touch with your clients. You may work with a client on a direct legal matter only for a few months, but if you keep in touch, you can form a lifelong relationship and ensure they will come to you for future legal needs. Establish regular lines of communication with your clients and keep them informed.
  • Create a short, simple email newsletter that you can send out once a quarter, for example. You could cover cutting-edge legal issues affecting your clients' industry in your newsletter.
  • You may also check in on a client personally once a month or so if you worked closely with them.

Step 3: Building Professional Relationships

1. Maintain casual relationships with colleagues and partners. Attending lunch or engaging in idle chit-chat around the office might appear like a waste of time, but it helps you form relationships with other attorneys. Being known and liked within the firm increases your chances of becoming a partner.
  • A partnership is all about relationships. They will be more likely to invite you to be a partner if they like you and enjoy being around you.
  • Organizing company-sponsored events, such as holiday parties or summer picnics, is a great way to expand these relationships. But you also want to socialize with your coworkers in a more informal setting.
  • Do not feel obligated to participate in activities you do not enjoy - you will not make good company and your relationships will not be genuine. Maybe you do not have to go to the firm's annual golf retreat if you do not like golf.

2. You can work with several different partners at your firm. When many different partners are familiar with you and your work, your chances of making partners increase exponentially. Early on in your career, be available to help other partners with their caseloads.
  • Do not be afraid to do the grunt work that no one else wants to do. You will show that you are a team player who is willing to do whatever it takes to make the firm successful by taking on menial tasks.

3. Participate in local, state, and national bar associations. As part of a bar association, you have the opportunity to build deep, long-term relationships with other attorneys, both inside and outside of your own firm. Professional opportunities, as well as client referrals, can result from these relationships.
  • Develop relationships with attorneys who practice in related fields for client referrals. If you specialize in wills and trusts, you might network with family law attorneys, whose clients often need estate planning services.
  • You can also expand your expertise in your niche by joining specialty associations.

4. Participate actively in firm committees. As a member of your firm's committees, you build relationships with other committee members and demonstrate your commitment to the firm. Do not be afraid of volunteering for committee assignments.
  • As a member of a committee, you can also show off your leadership skills. Taking the lead on a successful project will impress your committee partners.
  • Look for an area where your company could benefit from an organizing committee and volunteer to set one up. To streamline your firm's recruiting efforts, for example, you might offer to organize a committee to organize the recruitment of new associates if your firm does not have one.

If you make it as a partner, be sure you know what they are proposing. Know the many levels of partnership at your company, as well as how the revenue pie is sliced and when it will be distributed. Many businesses pay partners a draw first and then distribute profits to partners on a quarterly or annual basis.

The majority of BigLaw firms provide two types of partnership: equity and non-equity. Because an equity partner is a genuine partnership, you will need to finance your participation. The assets and liabilities of the firm are owned by its equity partners.

Equity partnership is for firms that want to offer their employees the opportunity to be partners and enjoy the benefits without relinquishing control. You get the benefit of a partner title and prestige through non-equity partners, but you do not own a part of the company.

Average Time To Make Partner In A Law Firm?

According to the current trend, partnership lasts between 7 and 9 years, although how long varies significantly from firm to firm. In most law firms, partners are given the title even though they are merely "income partners," i.e., salaried lawyers who do not share in the firm's profits and often work on contracts. Typically, equity partnership is only available after 4-6 years of being a partner in firms with multi-tiered partnerships. In firms with only one tier of partnership, i.e., equity holders are the only ones allowed to hold the partner title, it is not unusual for associates to practice for 10+ years before becoming partners. These firms will often give associates titles such as "counsel" or "senior associate attorney" after seven years or so until they become partners.

How Much Do Partners In Law Firms Make?

On average, there are about 300 lawyers for each 1 partner in a law firm. Usually, the number of partners is less in large law firms. Although some are very big with hundreds of other employees, most law firms have fewer than 50 partners each.

It depends on different factors like years experienced, experience in certain areas, and how much you can bring into the firm each year. There is a huge difference in salaries among different law firms and even though some may earn a good salary, if they do not bring any clients to their law firms, then there is no guarantee that they will be kept as partners.

Now the question 'how much do partners make' is not answered easily. The salary of a partner can range from $25K to $1 million and above. The average salary of the partners is about $100,000, but it varies depending on several factors like the area of specialization and years in the field.

Normally new lawyers who do not have any experience yet earn small salaries compared to those who have more experience.

Some salaries may be higher than $1 million, but these are extremely rare cases, and only a very small percentage of lawyers earn this kind of salary. It is normally given to those who bring large amounts of clients to the firm or have specialized in certain highly demanded areas in law firms.

Partners who are more experienced and with good track records will be given high salaries. A partner's salary can increase by increasing the number of years spent in the field, and the more experience they have, the higher their income will be.

Partners also must work hard to maintain their clientele not to lose them to other law firms. This is why they need to keep a certain amount of clients brought to them each year to increase the number of their partners and even retain employees in their firms.

It also depends on where you are working, whether a large firm or a small one. A BigLaw firm allows its partners to work on many cases at the same time, which makes them earn more than those working in small firms.

published June 16, 2014

By Follow Me on
( 1630 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
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