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Washington-The ad is brazen, almost taunting, targeting the wounded ego of the thwarted associate. “So they promised to put you on the fast track, huh? That you’d make partner six years out of law school?” it reads. “Yeah, right. The last time someone made partner at your firm, Reagan was president.” At a time of year when partnership promotions are being announced and bonuses doled out, it’s the kind of pitch that’s bound to strike a nerve. That’s the point, according to Carl Reece, the Los Angeles-based legal recruiter behind the ad. Reece said that many of the passed-over senior associates he advises feel duped by their firms. “They’re shell-shocked,” Reece said, and still feel they “are the best of the best.” For Reece and dozens of other recruiters, this is high season, as a whole crop of senior associates who didn’t make partner are mulling whether to take their bonuses and hit the road-preferably for firms that offer either better hours or a real shot at the brass ring. But even for graduates of top-tier law schools who have toiled at the biggest or whitest-shoe of firms, the opportunities can be surprisingly narrow. Highly paid-in the neighborhood of $200,000 and $300,000 a year-and often without their own book of business, senior associates can be a tough sell, say a number of legal recruiters, who guide the lawyers through job searches that can take anywhere from three months to a year or more. For the associates, the process takes patience, soul-searching and the ability to withstand some bruising of their self-esteem. For many associates, this is the first time they have squarely faced failure. Typically, they have graduated from elite colleges and law schools and landed their first jobs at premier firms. They might have had a half-dozen or more job offers as newly minted lawyers but now have a handful-or none. The combination of a big salary, little free time and a desire to hold on to a prestigious job can keep some associates from moving to smaller or less prominent firms where they would have a better shot at partnership. “You’re really pulling back against psychological inertia,” said one eighth-year associate at a white-shoe New York firm who is searching for a new job and is unsure whether he wants to move to another large firm. Surprised at wariness A sixth-year associate in the San Francisco office of a notoriously competitive international firm said he was surprised by the wariness with which firms have regarded him during his ongoing job search. “I always thought that senior associates could pretty much write their ticket,” said the associate, who has a young family and feels that he needs to maintain his $200,000-plus income. “It’s not the slam-dunk that I thought it would be.” A common complaint among senior associates trying to leave their firms is that the criteria for making partner are ambiguous and the process secretive. The West Coast associate said he was told recently that he would be pushed back a year, which is not unusual in firms with lockstep compensation based on seniority. But still, it’s akin to being held back a year in school-with the added pressure of compensation and professional reputation on the line. The associate decided it was not worth staying to see whether he would make partner. But some of his friends are still grasping for the elusive golden ticket. “Some want to play out this process as long as they can,” he said. “But a lot of us are not necessarily sure we want to marry ourselves to a firm the way a partner does.” An additional problem is that other firms are often more cautious about hiring senior associates than they are about bringing in younger associates who come with less professional baggage and lower billing rates and salary.

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