Making Partner

Why go big when you can supersize? As has been reported recently, one of Biglaw’s most aggressive firms in terms of growth, Dentons (née Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and some foreign counterparts cobbled together just a few years ago), is now in serious discussions about a combination with McKenna Long & Aldridge. Both firms are products of recent tie-ups themselves, and the combined firm should the transaction go through will be instantly one of the world’s largest, at least in terms of number of lawyers. Welcome to the age of the global Megalaw franchise, in which a firm can raise its profile by connecting with other firms in the interest of getting bigger, all the while creating a new global brand in the process. Dentons is sure giving it a try.

It is actually unfair to say that Dentons is the Biglaw equivalent of McDonald’s, or even Burger King. Biglaw brands of that stature would be Baker & McKenzie or even DLA Piper, and not only because they are bigger….

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Blink and it is October. The last quarter of the Biglaw year is officially in play. Unfortunately, there is no indication that this fourth quarter will see the flurry of pre-tax-law-changes deal activity that salvaged 2012 for a lot of Biglaw firms. So firm leaders will actually have to manage, over the next few months, (1) the usual expectations from the partnership regarding end-of-year bonuses and distributions; (2) the lateral activity “silly season” we’re now in, especially if the firm is recruiting laterals for the purposes of adding talent and not just a short-term revenue boost; (3) the broken associate system at many Biglaw firms, where attrition is celebrated with a fervor that used to welcome the huge Biglaw first-year classes of yore with their promise of profit-driving leverage; and (4) the decision on whether to invite any of their surviving counsels and associates into the partnership. Yes, Biglaw firms will continue to make new partners. The smarter non-lockstep one-tier shops will make as many as they can. Or at least should.

And people who are gunning for partner in today’s Biglaw should be more vocal about making the business case for their candidacy. If they can’t, they have their answer. But if they can and don’t, then they are actually proving that they are not yet partner material. Because for most Biglaw firms, more partners, especially younger ones, are essential. And trying to buy that young core on the lateral market is a difficult and expensive task.

Why should Biglaw firms be thinking of minting more rather than fewer partners?

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This week, Lateral Link Director Tricia McGrath shares the inside scoop on what fifth years need to do to make sure they stay on track to become partner, and avoid the pitfalls that come with being passed over continually.

Law firm economics changed substantially over the past decade. Law firms now run like “businesses,” in corporate America parlance. In the last few years, many associates at top firms who thought that they were “on track” for partnership were unexpectedly passed over. Unfortunately, market conditions suggest that many more will be passed over in future years.

As a recruiter, I frequently speak with senior associates who were on the wrong side of partnership decisions, and as a result, realized the “out” side of the firm’s “up-and-out” policy. Many of these overlooked associates are now wondering how the train went off the track so quickly. Don’t the years of solid billables and strong reviews account for anything? For most of these associates, their best-case scenarios are a new position at another Biglaw firm with a three-year partner look — often going in to their new firm as a fifth or sixth year — or an in-house position at significantly less compensation (in most cases). Often, neither of these options is particularly attractive for the candidate.

How can you protect yourself from becoming a senior associate who has been passed over, has no business, and has limited job prospects?

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Keep your head down, and prepare to wait if you want to make partner.

As we mentioned in Morning Docket, the American Lawyer just published a wonderful study about making partner at the top Biglaw firms. The publication analyzed all of the new partner hires at 97 of the Am Law 100 firms, reported on how women were doing, and noted some other general trends. Here are the top-line results:

  • Only one third of new partners were women.
  • The average wait for partnership was 10.5 years.

Oh, and there’s a chart that shows which firms were really hostile toward making new female partners….

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