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The Biggest Lie about Making Partner in a Law Firm

published November 04, 2019

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
Published By
( 433 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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It’s the dream of many budding lawyers: making partner in a law firm. The money. The fame. The prestige. And, we’ll admit that it’s a nice dream. We’ve all watched the movies and television series that portray law firm partnership as big money and sitting on the office balcony smoking cigars and drinking Chivas Regal just like Denny Crane and Alan Shore…with or without the cheap, plastic lawn furniture. Really, one would think law firm partnership would involve the big bucks that could result in more comfortable, trendy outdoor digs. Yet, that brings us right to the topic of this article. The biggest lie about making partner in a law firm? That becoming a partner means a lawyer will be raking in the big bucks.
The Biggest Lie about Making Partner in a Law Firm

Law Firm Partnership: A Rose by Any Other Name?

Sure, introducing yourself as a partner sounds good. It’s an impressive title. It denotes that you put in the proverbial blood, actual sweat, and actual tears to your profession. Your mom will most certainly be proud, as will most of your friends and acquaintances. You’re a law firm partner, after all. It’s just that for many lawyers who are on the partnership track and are named partner, they learn that a lot of the time, it really is just an honorary title.

How Does a Partnership Work in a Law Firm?

There are several law firm partnership models. The most common terms you should know for the purposes of this conversation are single-tier partnerships, two-tier partnerships, non-equity partnerships, and equity partnerships. You’ll note throughout the article that there are some similarities between the terms and how they work in a law firm setting. A single-tier partnership is a partnership model involving equity. Associates devote most of their career, fresh out of law school, to the firm. They bring in business. If they work hard enough and contribute enough business to get noticed, they may be invited to join the partnership. In this model, they receive an interest in the equity of the law firm. Thus, they enter into an equity partnership. We’ll explain more about that soon.

A two-tier partnership is now the most common model of law firm partnership. It became such as law firms began to change how they hire lawyers. Lateral hires are the new normal, even for junior partners, who have their own book of business. With the two-tier partnership, an associate lawyer or a lateral hire could make partner, but they are non-equity partners. They may have some management power, but they don’t have an actual ownership interest.

With an equity partnership, the partner may or may not receive a salary. They do receive what is known as an equity draw. How often the equity draw occurs depends on the firm. It might be monthly or it might be quarterly. The draw is usually based on a percentage of the law firm’s profit during that period. The percentage each partner receives may be determined by all of the partners if the firm is relatively small or it may be determined by a compensation committee in larger law firms. The percentage may be based on factors such as the performance of each partner, their contributions for a certain amount of time (both billable and non-billable time), accounts receivable, write-offs, and other accounting information. It may also be based partially (or fully) on the individual partner’s production. It may also depend on seniority.

With a non-equity partnership, you get the fancy title of partner, but there’s no equity draw. Non-equity partners in a law firm generally keep receiving a salary. That salary is based on the same factors as those applied to associates.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Partner at a Law Firm?

We recognize that there are some instances where an equity partnership may be on the horizon as well as the existence of those who are fine with simply the title of being a partner. Hey, to each their own. If you’re happy, we’re happy for you. How long it takes to become a partner at a law firm depends on the law firm, your contributions, and the type of partnership offered. If you’re a lateral hire bringing your own book of business, the size of your book and the money coming in with it could mean that you make non-equity partner within a few years. For equity partners or what is thought of as the more traditional model of partnership, it could take an associate ten years or longer to become a partner. However, there is no guarantee.

Does Equity Partnership Always Equate to the Big Bucks?

Now you understand the primary difference between an equity and a non-equity partner, you may be under the impression that equity partnership is more preferable than non-equity because equity means making the big bucks. While it is possible in law firms with equity partnerships to make better money, it’s important to understand that in addition to the contribution and seniority level of each partner, there’s another factor that must be considered. That factor is liability. As an equity partner, you may be liable for the debts of the law firm. This may include, but is not limited to, you being required to contribute to or fully pay creditors for law firm debts. Equity partners may also be required to invest into the law firm. Oh, and if the firm goes out of business, you most likely will not get your investment back.

In addition to varying pay, the possibility of being liable for law firm debts, and the probability of making capital contributions, equity partners have other concerns as well. We’re not just talking about board meetings, committees, and management concerns. We’re talking about paying for your own insurance and other benefits. There’s also the matter of ensuring that you take care of your taxes. This could involve you needing to pay estimated quarterly taxes.

Law Firm Partnership Isn’t All Fun and Games

Law firm partnership certainly provides you with a nice title but doesn’t guarantee a life flush with money and power. In fact, it could be nothing more than a title and a ton of additional financial and management responsibilities. Yet, it’s something that you should approach with your eyes wide open. Understanding the differences between equity and non-equity partnerships (or single-tier or two-tier partnerships) helps you better know whether partnership is the right decision for you.

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 November 04, 2019

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 433 votes, average: 4.5 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.