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It’s a tough year to be up for partner. Many senior associates who graduated in the early 1990s and slogged through the crushing workload of the technology boom are now faced with limited prospects for advancement at their firms. Facing no immediate end to falling or flat revenues and profits, law firm partnerships are reluctant to elect any more members than they have to. And that’s particularly true in practice groups like corporate that have been hard hit during the economic downturn. As a result, partners have to weigh plumping the partner ranks in a paralyzed practice group against alienating valuable talent. “In the slow practice groups, it’s definitely more challenging to make partner,” said Keith Wetmore, Morrison & Foerster’s chairman. San Francisco-based MoFo announces its new partner class next month. The downward trend in new partners got started last year. The 10 top-grossing Bay Area law firms named 28 percent fewer partners in 2001 than in 2000. Of those firms, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati logged the most dramatic decline in new partners between the boom and the bust. The firm voted in five new partners in 2001, down from 14 in 2000 and 23 in 1999. Wilson Sonsini voted last weekend on the next class, adding 13 new partners. Before the vote, Wilson Sonsini counted at least seven ninth-years and at least 18 eighth-years among its associate ranks — signifying that the partnership track is lengthening at the firm. Because of possible mid-career changes or special circumstances, it’s unlikely that all of the eighth- and ninth-years were up for partner. But it stands to reason that Wilson Sonsini’s deep bench of senior associates prompted tough decisions. Firm managers were mum on the issue. But with the economy still lagging, associates at the firm are resigned to diminished expectations. “I understand what the economic climate is,” said one associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I do have vague expectations that things will be tougher this year.” Wilson Sonsini isn’t the only firm that made its mark during the tech boom to show a decrease in the number of associates making partner. San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, for example, named nine partners in 2001, down from 24 the year before. When the firm announced its 2001 class, a ranking partner chalked up the decline to the shrinking economy. Nor is the dilemma of having too many candidates up for partner limited to tech firms or to the Bay Area. Bradford Hildebrandt, chairman of the law firm consultant Hildebrandt International, said firms that have swelled their ranks significantly in recent years face the same quandary. One upshot is that the stigma of getting passed over for partner is diminishing, he said. Firms are lengthening their partnership tracks and creating tiers of non-equity partners to accommodate the bloated ranks of associates, he said. And firms are more forthcoming about an associate’s standing when they don’t make partner, he said. The rigid up-or-out approach and the taking on of partners even when economics don’t support them are both falling by the wayside, he said. “Who knows when this market is going to change,” Hildebrandt said. “When the tide turns, law firms are going to find themselves missing whole classes of expertise.” There is hope for associates at some Bay Area firms. A few seem to have been able to keep the size of their new partner classes relatively steady. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Cooley Godward elevated 11 associates to partner in 2001, just one fewer than the prior year. Mark Pitchford, Cooley Godward’s chief operating officer, said the firm’s standards haven’t changed despite the economy. The firm hasn’t yet announced its 2002 partner class. “You are ultimately trying to run a profitable business organization, but you can’t be divorced from what’s going on,” Pitchford said. “But you also have to weigh heavily the very tangible factor that people have proved themselves capable of achieving partner.”

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