I am currently working with several senior associates and counsel who have no desire to become partners and feel like they’re in a no-man’s land. These are people with 9–12 years of valuable experience advising clients, taking and defending depositions, and second chairing trials, people who absolutely love being litigators but look at the partners above them and think “not for me.” For some of them, it’s the fact that they don’t want to and/or don’t naturally develop business. For others, it’s about lifestyle. They want to practice, they love being at a firm, they want to hustle, but they don’t want to be a partner. (This may or may not be a trend; MLA's 2019 Millennial Attorney Survey found that 40% of current millennial associates have partnership as their long-term career goal.)
The law is one place where pure seniority—and a desire to just keep doing the work—is not always an asset. Every year, I send an email to the new class of fifth years letting them know that their chances of moving as a lateral are greatest within the next year—and will then drop somewhat precipitously. It isn’t entirely logical, but part of it is. These lawyers (sixth year and up) are increasingly expensive to hire and firms fear that they are leaving because they want to be partners and aren’t on track at their current firm. This is definitely not always the case. People want to leave within their sixth and seventh years and beyond for myriad reasons. But I can understand the law firms’ trepidation.
But for this cadre of senior candidates who are usually fairly agnostic about their title and want to keep doing good work, I’d urge law firms to take a second look. The law firm model in the UK allows for different, non-partner track categories of lawyers—and senior people thrive in them. The roles involve continuing to do their day jobs while also doing extra bits of research and mentoring. This is one space where the Bay Area is not leading the pack. I’d posit that many local teams would benefit from hiring some senior lawyers for whom there’s no hustle to generate business and who are simply tried and true.
I placed a very senior attorney last year and recently ran into her bosses. They couldn’t stop raving about her, her gravitas and her experience. Let’s start viewing experience as the massive positive that it is and help people with deep experience continue to use it in a law firm environment, rather than blindly dismissing talent based on class year.