Maybe you’ll make partner next year.

Back when I was at the law firm, billing more hours than I knew were in a week, there were people who thought I was “gunning” for partnership. I billed a ton of hours, had basic social skills and a good mentor, and hey, I’d look pretty good in any “diversity” partner puff piece. Just add ten years of sustaining a maniacal pace, learning how to generate rain in a shrinking market, and navigating the political minefield of kissing the right people’s asses, and maybe I could have had a shot.

Suuuure I would have. Making partner at the Biglaw firm that you started with is functionally impossible. It happens so infrequently that setting it as a goal is about as realistic as children saying they want to walk on the Moon when they grow up. The odds were long before the economic crisis that caused partnerships to close their ranks and protect their profits like dragons hoarding treasure.

It’s not going to happen, but trying to get there ruins a lot of people. They can be having perfectly fine, perfectly serviceable Biglaw careers, but then somebody starts dangling the possibility of “partnership” in front of them, and suddenly they are trying to schmooze late into the night and kick their billable hours up into the 3,000-a-year range. And maybe if they’re lucky they’ll be able to get into a less prestigious firm, slog another couple of backbreaking years as “counsel,” and then get equity at some other shop.

Am Law Daily has the story of a man who finally got his shot at the brass ring, was fired over his alcoholism, and died a short while later. It’s a sad and extreme story, but many people fall in all sorts of ways on the path to partnership….

The powerful (and powerfully depressing) Am Law story, by Claire Zillman and Sara Randazzo, is about Ryan Farley, a former Mayer Brown attorney who briefly made partner at LeClairRyan before succumbing to his personal issues. It seems that Farley had some serious battles with alcoholism, and that, as much as anything, is why he died at the age of 39 (his official cause of death is still undetermined).

And while alcoholism had a lot to do with Ryan Farley’s career, many of the challenges he faced are endemic to lawyers trying to climb the Biglaw ladder. From Am Law:

Although Farley’s personal and professional setbacks were the product of his own particular circumstances, they reflect the kinds of anxieties that exist throughout the associate ranks of the nation’s largest law firms. Not every first-year associate yearns to make partner, but those who do face long odds: A third of each first-year class typically leaves by the end of the third year; two-thirds are gone by the end of the sixth. Those who remain must compete for an ever-shrinking number of partner positions.

“These days, the pressure that comes with having to be a technical expert as well as someone who has the potential to build business is far too much for most people,” says Joi Bourgeois, a consultant who works with associates making the transition out of law firms. “I believe many people on the path to partnership have no chance. They just don’t know they have no chance.”

The sad thing about having “no chance” is that Biglaw is full of people who have been very successful at everything they’ve done. But now they’re being put into a situation where most of them will fail. The odds are ever not in their favor. And like the Hunger Games, even though there is a nice reward for the winner, the struggle to get there is more of a punishment than a game.

Am Law details the specifics of Farley’s career, how he got passed over for partner at Mayer Brown, caught on at LeClair, and eventually fell off the wagon. I’m sure every person who gets passed over for partner has their own personal story about how their massive career achievements and commitments were not enough to get them equity at the firms that have eaten so many of their hours.

For all those people who are currently on the path to partnership, just hope that the journey is worth it, because chances are that your destination has already been blocked.

A Lawyer’s Life Cut Short [Am Law Daily]

Earlier: The Lament of a Thirty-Something


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