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How hard is it to make partner these days? At the end of last year, 18 of New York’s 25 largest law firms announced a total of 61 Manhattan-based associates who had been elevated to partner. Given that many large firms have about that number of incoming first-year associates each year, the odds can safely be placed in the neighborhood of one in 18. But an associate need no longer take those odds sitting still. As a multitude of firms eagerly expand into new practice areas, associates are finding they can have more than one bite at the apple. Tom M. Fini decided he wanted to become a partner at a big firm when he was a clerk in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1993. “When I saw litigators argue, I just loved that process,” he said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” After clerking, Fini spent the next five years as a litigation associate at New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The experience was fantastic, he recalled, but the brass ring remained elusive. He decided to look elsewhere. “The most important thing to me was to find a thriving practice that offered the most realistic opportunities for someone of my skill and experience,” he said. After interviewing at several major firms, Fini settled on Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, joining as a lateral associate in 1999. “At that time, Cadwalader’s litigation practice was growing enormously,” he said. “Dennis Block had just joined and he had brought incredibly exciting litigation.” This year, Fini, 34, finally achieved his goal and became a Cadwalader litigation partner. He was the only New York partner the firm made this year, out of two overall. Last year, the firm made four new partners overall. Because they are often brought aboard for their expertise or because a firm is trying to fill gaps in its practices, lateral associates occasionally have an edge over homegrown associates vying for partnership, acknowledged Jack H. Nusbaum, chairman of Willkie Farr & Gallagher. But they may more often face disadvantages, he noted. “Lateral associates are an unproven quantity,” said Nusbaum. “Fair or not, there’s a perception that they’re someone else’s rejects.” Nusbaum said law firms’ strategic goals played a smaller part in partnership decisions than associates might believe. Thus, many firms will continue to make new mergers-and-acquisitions partners despite the poor economic environment and will not try to promote bankruptcy or litigation partners instead. HARD TO PREDICT Indeed, it remains difficult to generalize about a law firm’s partnership choices. For every firm, like Cadwalader or Willkie, that made fewer partners this year, there are those like Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, which elected eight New York partners this year compared with no new New York partners the year before. “When an associate tries to be predictive, it’s absolutely hopeless,” said Nusbaum. “If you told people eight years ago to join bankruptcy practice, they’d laugh at you, but our bankruptcy associates are very happy now.” Associates become partners because they have the talent and drive above all, said Nusbaum. “By the time we make people partners, they’re partners already,” he said. “You’re changing the economic equation very slightly.” This year, Willkie elevated one associate to its partnership, compared with four the year before. Newly minted corporate partner Holly Youngwood, 34, echoed Nusbaum’s sentiments. “Jack always says, ‘people make themselves partners,’” she said. “Truthfully I love what I do.” The promotion is all the more sweet for Youngwood because her husband, Jonathan Youngwood, became a litigation partner this year at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett. “We do different things so we don’t worry about being on opposing sides,” she said. That includes her father-in-law, Alfred Youngwood, who is a tax lawyer as well as the chairman of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
Related charts: Partner Compensation, 25 Highest Per Equity Partner at New York Firms 2003 Partner Classes at Top 25 NYC-Based Firms

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