Rising to the partnership ranks at major law firms has traditionally required a range of skills that includes a tireless work ethic, a sharp legal mind and often the potential to bring in new business. One thing that seems increasingly unnecessary for those intent on making partner — unwavering loyalty to the firm that hires them out of law school.

An analysis of new partner classes at 50 Am Law 200 firms shows nearly 59 percent of the 499 associates and counsel promoted at those firms began their career elsewhere. Some logged time in government jobs. Many followed partners making lateral moves. Still others traded positions at firms where the odds of rising were slim to those that offered greater opportunities.

Consider Lezlie Madden, a onetime Cravath, Swaine & Moore associate with two clerkships on her resume who made partner this year at Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia. When Madden left Cravath in 2008 for her second clerkship with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, she fully expected to return to New York and Cravath, where she’d spent the summer between her second and third years at Fordham University School of Law.

“Then life got in the way,” said Madden, who spoke to The American Lawyer, an ALM affiliate of the Daily Business Review. Her husband, also a lawyer, decided he preferred Philadelphia, Madden’s hometown. The couple bought a house there, and Madden’s job search led her to Cozen. In March, following several rounds of intensive interviews and evaluations, Madden became one of 20 lawyers elevated to what Cozen calls members of the firm. Madden and 16 others were laterals.

While she doesn’t downplay how much work it took to get where she is today, Madden said the experience of moving up the law firm ladder wasn’t as grueling as she once imagined: “I have found it a much more humane process than I had feared it would be from the nightmares of law students everywhere.”

10 Percent Club

In an environment where making partner remains the exception rather than the norm, not everyone shares Madden’s sentiment. In comment after comment submitted in response to this year’s American Lawyer Midlevel Associates Survey, junior lawyers bemoaned the lack of a visible career path at their firms.

“The associates here seem to have given up on partnership,” one Am Law 100 associate wrote. “Be open about the fact 90 percent of us will not make partner,” another wrote.

Joi Bourgeois, a legal consultant who works with associates on career development, understands the frustration. “I see tons of smart people who don’t make partner,” Bourgeois said. “Either they’re not politically well-placed, or it’s those who don’t have the drive or the understanding that really, more than ever, it’s about adding to the business.”

Brad Rostolsky, who made partner at Reed Smith in Philadelphia this year, said he realized early on that he needed to make himself an invaluable part of a firm’s business plan if he wanted to rise. Before entering Duquesne University School of Law, Rostolsky earned a master’s degree in public health so he would have an edge as a health care lawyer.

After graduating from law school in 2002, he joined Post and Schell in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and began taking on medical malpractice defense cases. That led to a position as an associate in Cozen’s transactional and regulatory health care practice. After receiving a recruiter call, he joined Reed Smith, where he specializes in health care privacy laws, in 2006.

“Ultimately for a long time you’re doing work for clients, but your day-to-day clients as an associate are the partners,” Rostolsky said. “It’s about developing those relationships and expertise in certain areas so people think to go to you.”

Make A Plan

Bourgeois said junior lawyers hoping to make partner need to follow a plan, which in many cases will involve making a move to a firm they perceive as offering a better chance at success. “If people are moving, it’s because they need a new platform, somewhere that’s better-suited or where they can build more relationships,” she said.

Of the 50 firms that reported the breakdown of homegrown lawyers versus lateral hires in their new partner classes, just three promoted exclusively lawyers who began their careers at the firm: Debevoise & Plimpton (three new partners, including one who took a clerkship straight out of law school), Hughes Hubbard & Reed (three new partners) and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (eight new partners, including one who joined the firm following a clerkship).

At 36 firms, at least half the new partner class was composed of lateral hires. At six others, laterals accounted for at least 80 percent of new partner classes. Of those, only Steptoe & Johnson, which elevated four lawyers this year, had a partner class composed entirely of those who began their careers elsewhere.

Across 120 firms that have announced 2013 promotions, 1,238 lawyers received a promotion to partner, an average of 10 per firm. In the majority, the announcements don’t specify whether the new partners are being elevated to equity or nonequity status. Of those promotions, 34 percent were women, a rise from last year’s average of 32 percent.

Compressed Time Frame

Reed Smith partner and litigation department global chair Alexander “Sandy” Thomas, who is involved in the firm’s promotion process, said the mobility of associates seeking partner roles has added a few complications to the system.

“There’s an extra burden on the partnership itself to understand a lateral associate’s capabilities, to make careful judgments in what is often a compressed period of time about that associate’s abilities to be promoted,” he said. “Instead of having seven, eight, or nine years with someone, we increasingly are faced with having less time than that.”

The compressed time frame is among the reasons Reed Smith is careful not just about who it elevates to partner, but what becomes of them after they make the jump.

“We’re trying to pay ever more attention, so nobody feels like they made partner and they’re standing on the edge of a cliff,” Thomas said.

That doesn’t appear to be a problem for at least some of this year’s newly minted partners.

Dismas Locaria, a 2003 University of Maryland School of Law grad who made partner at Venable in Washington after spending his career at the firm, said his work life has stayed relatively the same since being promoted.