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The story of Norm Hamill, the nonequity partner who hopped firms to become a junior associate, proves that the salary wars have, indeed, turned the world upside down. But in one respect, Hamill is the avatar of a long-standing trend: the lengthening of the time to equity partnership. As if one track weren’t enough, the brave Hamill now has to climb two. And the tracks are mostly getting longer. The number of multi-tier partnerships in Am Law 100 firms is up from 34 in 1991 to 62 in 1999. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius recently joined the list. Why not? There’s no faster way to pump up profits per equity partner than to make fewer equity partners. It’s now common for big firms to list as their official track a range of years ending in 10. The unofficial track is longer. According to “Infinity Track,” an eighth-year Greedy Associate at a large Eastern firm, the very best litigators make of counsel after nine years, then equity partner two years later. Track sees the trend intensifying; high salaries will squeeze overall profits, and equity partners will guard the club gates to prop up per-capita profits. Charles Dougherty, Hill & Barlow’s partner in charge of associate issues, agrees with this analysis: “The net effect of raises will be to lengthen the track.” Track sees a vicious circle. “Salaries have been raised in blatant recognition that folks won’t make partner,” he says. “But after this latest round, associates are less likely to make partner than ever.” And, ironically, “any associate would prefer to make partner.” Mark Oldman, a founder of the Vault.com careers Web site, thinks that long tracks promote attrition and defeat the raises’ purpose. “You’d think partner tracks would be shortened in response to the dot-coms,” he says. Happily, at least four firms have been thinking along the same lines and are bucking the track-lengthening trend. Belin Rawlings & Badal, a Los Angeles litigation shop, has responded to the salary wars by making all three of its associates partners. The firm says that it will make all new lawyers partners instantly, and it’s willing to take lawyers three years out of law school. The biggest winner is Belin’s youngest lawyer, new partner Peter Kravitz, Rutgers Law School class of ’95. “Big raises won’t satisfy the entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “That’s backward thinking. The person who stays because of the raise wasn’t thinking about start-ups in the first place. But now that I have an ownership stake, I’m less likely to be lured away.” Boston’s Hill & Barlow has scrapped its eight-year track for a flexible track, with partner eligibility after as little as five years. Its starting salary is $100,000, far below the going rate, but with the possibility of a 40 percent bonus. Hill’s flexible track, together with its associate-led incubator program for start-ups, helped the 120-lawyer firm lure a young lawyer last week from Boston’s salary leader, Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault. Atlanta’s Arnall Golden & Gregory has made associates eligible for partnership whenever they’re ready — regardless of seniority. It announced the new policy even as it raised salaries to the new local standard of $100,000 for first-years. Harking back to his youth, managing partner Bill Kitchens says that he could see a precocious lawyer making partner in as little as 4 1/2 years. “I started in 1973, and it took me 5 1/2 years,” he says. “We turned out okay.” In Washington, D.C., Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky did Arnall and Hill one better. When it raised salaries, it not only abolished the set time to partnership, it also abolished class years. To trot out a phrase that I try to save for once a year, Dickstein has reinvented the track. After the second year, associates will move through three “professional levels,” each at his or her own pace. Within a level, an associate’s salary will vary according to the number and value of hours, taking into account billing rate, writeoffs and valued nonbillables. There is no billable minimum. Managing partner Angelo Arcadipane says that traditional associate pay “is structured in an uneconomical, irrational way, and not designed to meet client demands, because [pay] and advancement are not directly tied to productivity and value added.” Dickstein’s consultant’s dream of a pay structure is aimed in large measure to satisfy clients — Du Pont Asst. General Counsel Thomas Sager calls tying billable rates to class “archaic” and “unacceptable.” The plan might be good for associates too, and it shouldn’t be judged in the context of a column on track length. But the net effect on time to partnership remains to be seen. “It means you can move through the system more quickly,” says Arcadipane, “as quickly as six years, I’d say. On the other hand, a good attorney who chooses a higher quality of life and a slower professional development will be highly compensated, without the stigma of being placed behind his class.” Alas, I foresee a long road for most young Dickstein lawyers. As a ’93 law grad, I was hoping my column might be called “Partners” next year. Reality says I should wait a few years and ask for “Nonequity Partners.” I don’t like the ring of it.

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