Alexandra Bach Lagos
Alexandra Bach Lagos (J. Albert Diaz)

Meet Alexandra Bach Lagos, University of Miami law graduate, member of the inaugural class of the Florida Bar Leadership Academy, member of the Bar’s Judicial Nominating Procedures Committee and past president of the Miami chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers.

Watch related: What does it take to make partner? These three know

The Charts: New Partners 2014

Lagos is also one of the newest members of what may seem like an endangered species these days: BigLaw partners who worked their way from associate. She was the only associate in the Miami office of Shook, Hardy & Bacon who was promoted to partner in 2014.

In 2014, neither Akerman nor Holland & Knight promoted any South Florida associates to partner. Greenberg Traurig promoted seven South Florida associates to partner, down from 10 in 2013.

In past decades, being named partner at a law firm was almost assured for hard-working associates. The typical career track for a law school graduate was to snag a job with a major law firm, work long hours and weekends, and in a single-digit number of years become a partner, complete with an outsized office and secretary.

In post-recession years, not only has that partnership track lengthened from eight to up to 12 years, but it has become increasingly elusive. No longer can dedicated associates expect partnerships. As a result, many are leaving BigLaw after several years to hang their own shingles, go in-house or join smaller firms.

“There’s an accelerating trend in the industry across the country that it’s becoming much harder than it used to be to become and remain an equity partner,” said Kent Zimmerman, a law firm consultant with Zeughauser Group in Chicago. “It used to be that the excellent lawyer doing excellent legal work was enough. Now you have to do excellent legal work and build a desirable book of business.”

Zimmerman said young associates are well aware of the trend and have adjusted their aspirations from their parents’ days.

“They are savvy and well-informed, and they are not having the wool pulled over their eyes,” he said. “It seems like fewer young attorneys now than in the past aspire to the brass ring—the partnership. Now you see them come in to get the experience of working at a huge firm, pay off their student loans, and then go in-house or do something else.”

Some graduates, realizing their chances of making partner are slim and unwilling to let their lifestyles suffer, are even eschewing BigLaw in favor of small and midsized firms, said Alex Acosta, law dean at Florida International University in Miami.

“I was talking to one of our top graduates the other day, and he told me he was not looking to go into BigLaw,” Acosta said. “I think there’s been enough publicity about the changing nature of law. This person wants a reasonable salary at a prestigious firm, but he wants a smaller or midsized firm that would give him greater responsibility earlier on that would empower him. And he doesn’t want to sacrifice his lifestyle to do so. It may be a millennial thing.”

Joe Ankus, a legal recruiter with Ankus Consulting of Weston, agrees, saying, “You have a much better shot of becoming a partner at a medium to small regional or statewide firm than you do at an Am Law 200 firm. The loyalty factor at BigLaw firms is almost zero.”

Witness Shari Ben Moussa, who recently made partner at Katz Barron Squitero Faust Friedberg English & Allen. The 33-year-old considered only small and midsized firms after graduating from the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law in 2007. She said she’s the first of her circle at UF to make partner.

“I think you can become a number at a big law firm,” the Miami attorney said. “I have friends at big law firms, and they do the same thing day after day after day after day. I’ve touched almost every corner of the real estate transactional world. I knew I’d be exposed to a lot more early on at a smaller firm than I would at a BigLaw firm.”

Striking A Balance

Associates are also caught in a Catch-22 of sorts, Zimmerman said. Law firms, facing increasing pressure from clients to cut costs, are giving document review and low-level legal work they used to hand to associates to contract lawyers. As a result, associates have fewer billable hours under their belt.

“In many firms, there are too many attorneys and not enough work,” he added. “The average hours go down. It used to be realistic for a firm to push for 1,850 hours or more. Now it’s 1,640.”

Both Akerman and Holland & Knight say it’s simply a coincidence that no associates were elevated in South Florida and explain their firmwide promotions have been relatively consistent in the past few years. Akerman promoted 19 associates to partner in 2012 and 16 in 2013. Holland & Knight promoted about 18 associates in each of the past four to five years.

“We take the elevations as they come,” said David Whitestone, chair of Holland’s partnership committee. “Some years we have more in one market than another. It just depends on the class of associates and senior counsel at that stage.”

Akerman chairman and CEO Andrew Smulian noted: “The message here is that it is a variable where attorneys are in their career progression. I’d be reluctant to read more into it than that. We are trying to strike a balance in promotions from within and bringing in laterals.”

But Matt Gorson, co-chairman of Greenberg Traurig, acknowledges the partnership track at his firm has lengthened since the firm first began its summer associate program 37 years ago. What began as a five-year partnership track like Gorson’s is now a seven- to 10-year track, he said.

Longer Track

Gorson also acknowledges it’s harder to make partner at Greenberg and other firms than it used to be.

“One might say it’s more difficult than in my day,” he said. “It’s probably harder today given the marketplace.”

One doesn’t need to develop a book of business to become a shareholder at Greenberg but must display an ability to do so in the future, Gorson said.
Smulian agrees.

“We certainly look to a book of business in many contexts, but there is no substitute for talent and drive to serve our clients,” he said. “We look for a kind of character that’s additive to the esprit de corps to the firm, shares our values and our commitment to client service and to be a great lawyer, and diversity.”

Case in point: Shook Hardy’s Bach Lagos doesn’t yet have a book of business. Yet the 32-year-old was promoted to partner after seven years in part because of her strong community involvement.

“I don’t have a book of my own clients,” she said. “It’s something I work on on a daily basis. I think my firm values my involvement in the community. They see there is a lot of potential to generate business there.”

Bach Lagos also attributes her promotion to three reasons: her deliberate decision to stay full-time after having a baby, her firm is doing well, and she is a member of two minority groups as a Hispanic woman. “I know my clients are committed to being diverse,” she said.

Process Understood

Drew Altman, one of Greenberg’s shareholder class of 2014, is even more of a rarity these days. He made partner after 7½ years, a year ahead of schedule.

“Being white and Jewish is not exactly a minority around these parts,” he cracked.
Rather, Altman joined Greenberg straight out of UF law school and works in the corporate transactional practice in Miami. The 39-year-old previously worked as a financial adviser for Prudential Securities. His recipe for success is far different from Bach Lagos as he is not particularly active in the community or a member of a minority.

Altman attributes his success to his hard work (“I work a fair number of weekends”), performance, mentorship by a number of top partners including Jaret Davis, co-managing shareholder of the firm’s Miami office, and his ability to develop a “very limited” book of business.

“I was not surprised I made shareholder,” he said. “The process is fairly well laid-out and understood by those of us who work here.”