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Once upon a time, partners were partners, and they ruled the firm. Then a few partnerships decided that they didn’t mind the idea of having partners who weren’t actual partners. And lo, the non-equity partner started billing. Now three-fourths of firms in The AmLaw 200 designate some lawyers as “partners” despite their not having a stake in the firm’s profits. But one firm has decided to abandon this dilution of the title. Indianapolis’ 260-lawyer Baker & Daniels reverted to a one-tier partnership last year, says managing partner Brian Burke. Senior associates facing the vote for partnership admission this fall need worry only about yes or no. “We do not admit new partners as income partners,” he says. The switch involved a substantial number of lawyers. At the end of 2001, the firm had 48 non-equity partners, about 34 percent of its partnership. The firm last year reduced that number to 15; the 23 other lawyers joined the equity partnership, says Burke. He casts the policy change as a cultural correction. “In our market, and markets like those we serve, we probably feel better about ourselves not having a two-tier partnership,” he says. Another partner, who asked not to be named, says that a second tier clashed with the egalitarian approach partners try to take. The change doesn’t give the firm a clear distinction in its local market, so feeling better about itself will have to office. Baker’s two major competitors in Indianapolis are split on the non-equity question. Barnes & Thornburg, which is larger, has non-equity partners, while Ice Miller, which is smaller, has a scant few. As at Ice, a few Baker & Daniels partners will remain income-only because of idiosyncratic work arrangements, says Burke. Burke calls the tier an experiment. It was a brief one. The firm began naming non-equity partners around 1998. [Burke wouldn't confirm that date.] Non-equity partner positions have let firms make two sorts of adjustments: They could ease out poor business-getters with a modicum of grace, while retaining some promising young lawyers for a few more years. “It’s hard to get work as a senior associate — hard to develop client relationships. And then you can’t become equity partner,” says Lori Carpenter, a Pittsburgh recruiter. “At least when you make it to non-equity partnership, then you can be a partner and establish those relationships.” The title is a reasonable adaptation to profit-hungry times, says Joel Henning, a consultant for Hildebrandt International Inc.: “It’s a pluralistic profession today, with men, women, people who have different levels of commitment to the practice. Thus, you have terrific lawyers who want to have good jobs with good firms, but are not interested in collections and debt structures.” Yet in Indiana, truth in advertising counts for something, too. Says Burke about the non-equity tier: “We’ve probably known all along that it wasn’t the way to go. That appeared to be the fad or the trend, and we succumbed to an alignment with a fad.” It’s one that he and his partners may need to continue resisting. Matt Fleischer-Black is a senior reporter at The American Lawyer, where this article first appeared in December 2003.

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