If you are a Biglaw partner and have only one title to hawk, I hope you are at a really top-tier firm. Because “partner” is no longer enough to impress clients. Especially in this age of multiple industry “guides” eager to anoint mortal lawyers with honorifics befitting your typical episode of Game of Thrones. (I am sure there is a female head of litigation somewhere who would relish being called Mother of Dragons, or a managing partner in Silicon Valley who would not mind being thought of as Lord of the Vale.) Between Chambers, Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers in America, and others, there are plenty of possibilities to supplement “partner” with something more.
Of course, the race for titles happens internally at Biglaw firms as well. Factor number one is prior business generation. Rainmakers are given titles by their fellow partners, like farmers seeding clouds for future rainfall. Every firm has at least a managing partner or CEO, numerous practice group heads, and an executive committee. Some firms, typically those of the “eat what you kill” variety, also exhibit a form of “title inflation,” with co-chairs galore and sub-department chieftains abounding. Plus office-level “chairs” — it is always a hoot when there is a local head of litigation for a branch office with three litigators. Especially when the branch office is a major city, with dozens of robust litigation practices at other Biglaw firms for clients to choose from. Everyone who has been granted a title uses it when marketing outside the firm. Who would want to hire a regular partner for a bankruptcy matter when you can have the co-chair of the Boston office’s (two-member) restructuring department handling things?
I have even started to see equity partners (or their equivalent) marketing themselves as such, lest anyone suspect that they are a mere income partner. In a competitive market, everyone wants whatever edge they can get. And it is not surprising that titles have proliferated in this age of lateral movement, as every new lateral wants to “come in” as something more than just a plain partner. It does not hurt that titles are free to dispense, and liberally granted on incoming laterals or promising partners that the firm does not want to necessarily pay any more but does not want to lose. No one says no to a title.
At the same time as this internal-titles arms race is happening, there has been an explosion in the number of external “honors” available to Biglaw partners eager to pad their online bios with more than just a law school journal stint three decades ago. This explosion has gone hand in hand with a general shift within Biglaw to an “all-star” rather than a true “equality amongst the partnership” model. As is partner egos needed more feeding — our publishing friends have created the Biglaw equivalent of Emmy, Oscars, and Tony nominations.
There is a hierarchy amongst the “listings,” to be sure. Chambers is alone at the top, and after a steep drop-off, everyone can argue about the relative prestige of the other rankings. Of course, Chambers ranks both groups and individual lawyers, making it a bit different than those listings that just name individual lawyers. Even so, Chambers has the most credibility among peers and clients, even as the editors struggle sometimes to find enough adjectives to encapsulate the “sheer brilliance” of any one particular “legal luminary” on their list. Chambers also skews older, way older, almost like a Biglaw Hall of Fame for some categories. (I also love those “45 under 45″ type-lists. They seem hardest to get onto, and reading about the winners, one gets a sense that the profiled subjects are ultimately Chambers-bound, unless they get ensnared in politics or the bench.)
Some of the newer entrants cast a wider net, and promote that they employ “improved methodologies” in determining which lawyers to stick on the list. Everyone loves to attack these publications as schlocky or whisper that they are all “pay-to-play” schemes. The loudest such critics are usually not on any of the lists. And the reality is that any such recognition is valuable. Even if it might not sway an in-house counsel at a major bank, recognition as a “Super” or “Best” Lawyer can impress a less sophisticated client. Getting on these lists falls within the “something worth shooting for” category, and there is nothing wrong with getting some help from marketing if you think your candidacy is a valid one.
That said, having certain group members recognized while others are not can lead to morale issues, especially if the resident Super Lawyer decides to redecorate his office with an ostentatious plaque and framed magazine covers. Relax, it is not a platinum-selling album. Keep a copy of the magazine at home, send one to your parents and in-laws, and tell your spouse and kids. Maybe take them to dinner for a little celebration. Anything more is too much. Except if you make Chambers, in which case you should take a vacation — somewhere fancier than your usual.
Ultimately, these awards are here to stay, and will likely continue to proliferate until the “legal recognition” industry starts to see some consolidation down the line. At certain firms, the ethos will continue to be that everyone is a star (and every partner will get paid accordingly). At the vast majority of the others, it will be more of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately approach, and any outside recognition of your legal skill will carry some weight. Bottom line is that we all have something to aspire to, whether it is an internal title or “your name in print” in one of the listings. And you thought making partner made you a success? You should feel that way, but if there are other titles within reach, you may as well grab them.
Is the title of “partner” enough in today’s Biglaw, or does one need to win some awards or have a title as well? Let me know by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.