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What To Do If Your Partnership Plans Fall Apart

Aebra Coe law360.com

Associates often begin their careers brimming with hope, dreaming of making partner and then, a few years later, they're hit with the hard reality that their vision of a corner office isn't going to materialize.

The odds of making partner in BigLaw are slim. Partnership promotion rates at large law firms range anywhere from 16 percent to just 1 percent, according to recent research by legal startup NavForward.

By any measure, the odds are not in favor of BigLaw associates making partner, and they will need a contingency plan.

Here are four alternative career paths for associates for whom BigLaw partnership isn't in the cards.

Find Another Niche

As associates progress beyond their first few years of law and come into their own, they should begin considering whether partnership is a realistic goal for them and whether it's something they even have an interest in pursuing, according to Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal.

"What we're seeing is that for a number of associates, partnership is not their ideal situation," he said.

When that's the case, and attorneys have a desire to stay in BigLaw and at their current firm, there are a number of paths they can take, Volkert said. Many take on an of counsel or other similar position while others move into roles that involve slightly more leadership.

"We've seen associates step up to manage groups of staff attorneys, as well as build out departments by handling work on a more cost-effective price point than traditional partner rates," he said.

For attorneys who have moved up through the ranks and earned the senior associate title and also hold an MBA, there are still more options. For example, taking on human resources or operational roles within the firm is a possibility, which could even eventually lead to a chief operating officer or executive director position, Volkert said.

"Traditionally partners go into those roles, but we're beginning to see business-savvy lawyers at the associate level move into them," he said.

Become a Big Fish

For many associates at large law firms, partnership may not be an option where they are, but it could be a possibility if they make a move to another firm where they become a big fish in a small pond, instead of the other way around.

"For many, the most attractive option is to move downstream to a lower ranked firm or boutique," said Darin Morgan, managing partner of Major Lindsey & Africa's Philadelphia office. "At such a firm, their partnership odds may dramatically increase, and their BigLaw experience will be valued."

Morgan said that in his experience, associates making a move from a more elite firm to a lesser one come into it with a good shot at partner thanks to their pedigree. Also, their new firms will often give them a reasonable path to partnership, he said, as it will help their own future recruiting efforts if their BigLaw laterals end up making partner.

"For those who like practicing law and aspire to partnership — or even a better work-life balance — a smaller firm or boutique may be the answer," Morgan said. "Some people also need to simply press the reset button, and they will like the value they feel as an experienced lateral who is not a 'baby' at the new firm, the way they were seen as a summer associate at their old firm."

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