Pathways to Partnership

In my line of work, I sometimes end up as a career counselor of sorts. People talk to me about what’s going on at their law school or law firm and ask me for advice about what to do.

I recently had occasion to speak with a lawyer who was laid off by his Biglaw firm. He remains on the website, but he hasn’t been to the office in months; that was part of the deal they negotiated with issued to him. He has been looking for a new job for months but has been having difficulty. He blames this in part on a lack of specialization — he’s a generalist, not really marketable as an expert in a particular type of litigation or transaction.

This reminded me of a chat I was having with an old friend from my high school debate days, who has found great professional success in a focused practice area. I contacted him again and our chat turned into a full-blown interview about how to become (and remain) a partner at a major law firm by establishing expertise in a particular field of substantive law.

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Last Sunday, of course, was Mother’s Day. With respect, to my own mother and other mothers, here are some observations on a frustrated Biglaw career….

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“Being a partner at an elite law firm isn’t what it once was,” as I recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal book review, but “while the brass ring might be tarnished, it still gleams brightly for many.” And with good reason: even if it’s harder than ever to become (and remain) a partner, for those who do manage to make it, the pay, perks, and prestige are plentiful.

The American Lawyer just released its latest New Partner Survey. The magazine heard from almost 500 lawyers who began working as partners between 2010 and 2013. About 60 percent of the survey respondents are non-equity or income partners — which makes sense, given the proliferation of two-tier partnerships, as well as how junior these partners are — and the rest are equity partners.

What are the most notable findings from the survey? Here are five:

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Life moves pretty fast in the digital age. Yesterday, we reported on the horrendous decision by Dean Paul Schiff Berman of George Washington University Law School to cut the stipend of GW Law’s “Pathways to Practice” program. The program is for unemployed graduates who get a stipend from the school to take a fellowship while they continue to look for more remunerative work.

When George Washington Law students signed up for the program a month ago — just in time to be counted as “employed upon graduation” — they were told that the stipend would be $15 per hour for a 35-hour work week. But Dean Berman decided that GW Law grads needed more of an incentive to find paying work, and yesterday he announced a plan to cut the stipend by a third, to $10 per hour.

Last night, after an outcry from students (and some bad press), Dean Berman changed his mind and decided to restore funding to the $15 per hour level.

Good times! There’s nothing quite like having to fight and beg for a one-year, $15-an-hour job after paying $45,750 per year in tuition.

In his letter reversing his decision, Berman has recast the reasons for wanting to cut the funding in the first place. I hope the class of 2013 is paying attention, because in the high likelihood that funding is cut next year, this is the justification you should expect to see….

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