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The fast track at top law firms is slowing down. Facing increasingly complex matters, an active market for lateral partners and greater pressure to improve profitability, major New York law firms are prolonging the period leading up to partnership. At firms where an associate’s first shot at partnership once came seven years after law school graduation, tracks of eight years or longer are now far more common. Last month, Weil, Gotshal & Manges issued a memo to associates announcing that the firm would henceforth only consider for partnership associates who had been out of law school for at least 8 1/2 years. The memo cited similar moves by other firms and the existing policy of practice groups within Weil Gotshal. “While we understand that this new policy may impair near term expectations, it will enable associates to develop more expertise and be judged for partnership after handling more senior level responsibilities,” the memo stated. Weil Gotshal partners declined to comment on the memo but partners at a number of other firms said Weil Gotshal’s move was hardly unusual. Even at firms that will still officially consider associates after seven years, associates promoted to partnership after that length of time have become rare. Valerie Ford Jacob, the co-managing partner of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, said her firm had gone to an 8 1/2-year track a few years ago. “Partners want associates to have more experience,” she said. “Litigation and transactions are becoming more and more complex.” Alfred Youngwood, the chairman of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, said his firm would still consider associates after seven years, but he agreed that the greater complexity of matters had generally lengthened the wait for associates vying for partnership. “It seems that 8 1/2 years has become the norm,” said Youngwood, who noted Paul Weiss had not promoted an associate to partnership after seven years since 1999. As an example of the extremely complicated transactions that now bedevil corporate lawyers, Ford recalled the drawn-out and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the William Wrigley Jr. Co. to acquire Hershey Foods for $12.5 billion. “Hershey was owned by a trust and it was just very, very complicated,” said Ford, whose firm represented Wrigley in the matter. But if major transactions have become more complicated, they have also become rarer, especially in the last three years. Though most major firms are now seeing a resurgence in their corporate practices, the recent downturn has deprived many associates now entering their eighth and ninth years of the sort of experience easily acquired during the boom years. David Dunn, a litigation partner in the New York office of Hogan & Hartson, said the impact of the downturn on associates’ experience was compounded by clients’ demands for leaner staffing on matters. “There are fewer opportunities for associates to gain experience,” he said. “Clients won’t pay for a second lawyer to be at a deposition.” But Dunn said he was not sure of the impact of such trends on overall partnership levels. He said he believed Hogan & Hartson generally had a different approach from other firms and continued to make partners of younger associates. Keith Wetmore, the chairman of Morrison & Foerster, said two of his firm’s most recent partners had been promoted after their seventh year, though he agreed that trends seemed to be pointing to a longer track. In particular, he noted the economic slowdown of the past few years had reduced the willingness of many firms to dilute profitability by increasing their partnership ranks. “When the law business is growing only incrementally, you expect to see fewer partners being made,” said Wetmore. “Lots of people’s expectations are being deferred.” In general, he said, partners’ drive for greater compensation had led to higher expectations of associates up for partnership. “Those higher expectations are best served by someone with greater seniority,” said Wetmore. LATERAL HIRING Increasingly, that greater seniority is provided by lawyers joining firms from other firms. Most managing partners insisted that the hiring of lateral partners does not result in smaller numbers of homegrown partners, explaining that lateral partners generally enlarge the economic enterprise in their own right. Some noted, however, that firms entering the New York market from elsewhere frequently hired to partnership senior associates and counsels from top Manhattan shops who have high-level transactional experience but no book of business of their own. The hope is that such lawyers will bloom into leaders in practices the firms do not already have, but these hires can be controversial because such opportunities are often denied senior associates elsewhere in the firm. More generally, lateral hiring of partners has been attended by lateral hiring of associates at many different levels. Regardless of what year they may be, lateral associates usually face a prolonged wait for partnership consideration as firms take their time to reach a high comfort level with associates who have received training elsewhere. The resulting plethora of lateral associates 10 years or more out of law school may have influenced how even associates who have joined a firm straight out of law school are viewed. “There’s always a desire to lengthen the time,” said Ford. “You’re opening up firm equity and you want to make sure you’re doing the right thing.” But Dunn said that firms that decided to lengthen their partnership tracks risked alienating mid-level associates to whom an extra year-and-a-half wait for partnership consideration may be the tipping point driving them to leave the firm or even the profession. “It’s more important now than ever to give associates effective feedback on their prospects for partnership,” he said. Youngwood said even if trends pointed to longer partnership tracks for most associates, there would likely always be associates who merited early promotion, and firms should be open to that possibility. “I think flexibility in the partnership process is a good thing to have,” he said. Wetmore agreed, recalling that the dot-com boom stoked demand for young partners perceived to be more in touch with the equally young executives typical of many startups. “If there is demand from clients and partners on matters, firms will make partners,” he said.

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