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Legal recruiter Cynthia Sitcov has been asking associates the same question since she started in the business in the mid-1980s: “Do you want to make partner?” And the quizzical look they give her in response has been the same, but for dramatically different reasons. Fifteen years ago, the answer was a resounding yes. But today “they look at me like I’m crazy,” she says. “They say, ‘I never want to be partner.’ “ This 180-degree change in attitude signals a generational shift in the goals of new lawyers. Today’s associates are less interested in the brass ring of partnership, which appears to them not just unattainable but increasingly undesirable, and are more focused on using their time at law firms to gain valuable work experience and earn money, without the expectation of long-term employment. A study released on Sept. 26 by the NALP Foundation — the research group created by the National Association for Law Placement — shows associates are leaving law firms in droves before they can even be considered for partner. By their sixth year, only about a third of associates were still with the firms they joined from law school, according to the study, which surveyed law firms and associates in 35 cities. Of those associates who left, less than half moved to another law firm. The number one reason associates quit, according to the survey of 4,131 associates, is “unmet performance standards.” Other top reasons include a lack of perceived opportunity for advancement, the pressure of billable hour requirements, and family obligations. “Long-term, mutual commitments between associates and law firms are not necessarily the norm,” the report says. “Rather, relationships between associates and law firms last only as long as market conditions dictate.” One former associate who recently resigned from a large firm to work for a nonprofit advocacy group agrees. “I think there are a lot of associates who go to firms without any intention of staying there long enough to be a partner,” says the ex-associate, who asked not to be named. “Firms realize this by and large, and I don’t think it really bothers them that much because, economically, they can’t make everyone partner.” He says associates quickly learn that being a partner doesn’t mean more interesting work or less pressure. “You sort of have this glamorous view of what a partner does before you go to a firm,” he says. “Why slave away for six or seven years when the carrot at the end of that is more work?” he asks. Covington & Burling hiring partner Mark Plotkin says the firm’s lawyers describe making partner as winning “a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.” Plotkin says associates today are more focused on getting experience early on and figuring out what to do with the rest of their lives than on making partner, a reversal from when he graduated from law school in 1987. “What one did was go into a law firm,” he says. “And the crowning achievement of that move into the law firm was to make partner.” But in the last 20 years, Plotkin continues, “There have been increased competitive pressures in the legal profession. . . . It has created much more stress for lawyers generally, and you get young associates who question if they want to be a partner in a law firm.” More associates today are looking at their options in government, nonprofits, and in-house legal departments, which often offer lighter schedules and less pressure, Plotkin says. OUT OF THEIR GRASP But many law firm associates also bolt because they don’t think they have a shot at partnership. In a prior study, the NALP Foundation asked associates in interviews and focus groups what they thought of the partnership, and the associates reported both diminished interest in making partner and lack of confidence that they would ever make the grade. In large part, associates believe making partner is out of their grasp, either because the standards are unfairly applied or because firms don’t want to further slice up their profits, the study found. “A lot of it really comes down to economics,” acknowledges Sitcov of Sitcov Director. Because low partnership numbers drive up profits per partner, firms may be wary of making a large number of even well-qualified associates partners. “The era of ‘if you work hard and pay your dues, you’ll eventually make partner’ has gone by the wayside,” adds legal recruiter Charles Garrison of Garrison & Sisson. Associates vying for partnership are increasingly evaluated on their potential to be savvy business developers and good managers, he says. “The bar is certainly higher to become an equity partner in a law firm.” Indeed, in recent years a growing number of firms have instituted non-equity partnership tiers. Rather than being paid a cut of the firm’s profits, non-equity partners earn a set income — in general, slightly more than a senior associate — plus bonus. In the District, 10 of the 20 largest law offices now have two-tier partnerships. “Clearly, it’s difficult to become a partner at a major law firm,” concedes Hogan & Hartson chairman J. Warren Gorrell Jr. But at his firm, he says, the criteria for partnership — and the number of new partners — have not changed dramatically over the years, although his firm has a non-equity partnership tier. “We’ve basically continued to make partners pretty much in the same way,” he says. One difference, though, is the mounting cost of law school, coupled with monumentally high associate salaries — a combination that makes big firms enticing employers for new lawyers. “It’s very attractive to join a large law firm and earn a lot of money and be able to pay those loans back,” Gorrell says. But in those first several years of practice “people mature a lot,” he says. “They have a lot of time to think about what they would like to do with their lives.” But Richard Wiley, managing partner of Wiley Rein & Fielding, says that although the evidence may suggest the partnership track has narrowed, his firm isn’t telling associates they have no chance. Wiley Rein makes five or six new partners each year, a number he says is respectable for a 250-lawyer firm. But, he says, the bar is high, and it will remain so. “It’s not just a technical expertise in your subject matter,” he says. “It’s something beyond that.” He lists business, managerial, communication, and mentoring skills as well as strong legal ability as necessary for partnership consideration. Many of those who won’t make the cut, Wiley says, won’t last at the firm until they are up for consideration anyway. But Wiley says his firm is intent on keeping their most talented associates and nurturing them to partnership. “It enriches the firm,” he says. But “they have to show that they can help us expand the practice.”

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