More Atlanta associates were promoted to partner this year than in 2015, as legal work further picked up and firms prospered.
The eight biggest Atlanta-based general practice firms made 15 percent more new partners firmwide—84, compared with 73 last year.
The largest of the eight, King & Spalding, made 24 new partners throughout the firm, compared with 17 last year. That’s triple the number of new partners that it tapped in 2010, during the depths of the recession.
Legal recruiter Shannan Rahman said she’s seeing more partner promotions as the economy improves. “Law firms are doing better and profits are up,” said Rahman, who places associates for The Partners Group.
Shannan Rahman, Partners Group
Partner promotions had plummeted in the years after the 2008 recession, because there was not enough work for firms’ existing partners and they didn’t want to dilute flattened profits.
Firms’ profits have rebounded, despite the limited economic recovery. King & Spalding reported a 12 percent increase in net income for 2015, fueled by a 9 percent revenue increase, which pushed profit per equity partner to just over $2.5 million.
The Daily Report tracked 95 Atlanta lawyers promoted to partner this year at 37 firms, ranging from Am Law 100 national operations to local litigation boutiques like Buckley Beal and Weathington Smith.
The majority of the 95 new Atlanta partners—62 percent—graduated from law school between 2006 and 2008, which means it took them seven to nine years to earn the promotion.
Laura Ashby, Miller& Martin
Laura Ashby was one of the associates who squeaked through the door of Big Law right before the recession hit, joining King & Spalding as a first-year associate in fall 2008. She just made partner at Miller & Martin, the Chattanooga-based firm she joined in 2010.
For some millennials, partnership is not the brass ring it used to be; it’s tougher to make partner and some associates decide the time sacrifices, added pressure and responsibility aren’t worth it. But Ashby, 33, said she’s aimed to become a law firm partner since she was a first-year associate, fresh out of Vanderbilt University Law School. “I was going into it with this as the ultimate goal,” she said.
Both Ashby’s parents are lawyers, which may have shaped that perspective. Her father, T. Bart Gary, also a litigator, is a name partner at Cobb County’s Freeman Mathis & Gary, and her mother, Beth Conlin, was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia before taking time off to raise children. Now she’s a project attorney at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.
“I knew the career trajectory, and that it was a good thing to be a partner,” said Ashby, a commercial litigator with a focus on intellectual property disputes. “You have more control over your career in some respects—and it seems to be something that people respect.”
“I’m very honored to be a member here,” she added.
Atlanta at the Center
At the eight big Atlanta-based firms, almost half of the partners promoted—41—were in Atlanta. That’s a 33 percent increase from the 31 new Atlanta partners those firms made in 2015.
King & Spalding and Alston & Bird each tapped eight new partners locally. Michael Ciatti, who chairs the King & Spalding committee that picks new partners, said the 18-office firm doesn’t consider candidates’ location. “It’s more about who their clients are and where their work comes from,” he told the Daily Report when the firm announced promotions.
That was followed by Arnall Golden Gregory with six, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton with five, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan and Morris, Manning & Martin (four each), and Troutman Sanders and Smith Gambrell & Russell (three each).
John E. Hall of Hall Booth
Atlanta-based Hall Booth Smith, which has about 150 lawyers, made a whopping 11 new partners firmwide (five in Atlanta), compared with only two last year. Founding partner John Hall attributed the increase to two things—the firm’s growth and the relative dearth of partner candidates from the years right after the recession.
Hall said about half of the newly promoted partners were on Hall Booth’s regular partnership track, which is about seven years, while the others were more experienced lateral hires from the last three or four years. Also, Hall Booth has almost doubled in size since 2010—and expanded beyond its Georgia base to the Carolinas, Tennessee and Florida.
Other firms with three or more new partners locally were Atlanta’s Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers with six, South Carolina-based Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough with five and global megafirm Dentons with four. Atlanta-based Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gun & Dial and national firms Jones Day and Seyfarth Shaw each promoted three lawyers in Atlanta.
All told, these firms accounted for three-quarters, or 70, of the new Atlanta partners tracked by the Daily Report.
More than half the new partners are graduates of Georgia law schools, with J.D.s from the University of Georgia (17), Georgia State (13), Emory (11), and Mercer (10). Vanderbilt, the University of Florida and Georgetown were also popular, while only 17 percent went to law schools outside of the Southeast.
Corporate and litigation were the most common practice areas, by far, for the new partners, followed by intellectual property and real estate.
Rahman, the legal recruiter, said partner candidates don’t need a book of business to get promoted, but it certainly helps. “It’s more likely that a lawyer will become partner if they have some kind of book,” she said. “But we do see service associates promoted to partner.”
At very large firms with large institutional clients, having business can mean relationships with the firm’s clients, she added.
Ashby said the process at Miller & Martin was fairly transparent. There are quantitative aspects, she said, such as the level of billable hours and profitability the firm expected, but it’s also qualitative. “Are you firm-minded? Are you working on client development?” were considerations.
There was no formal requirement for having a book of business with any set origination amount, Ashby said. Rather, the firm wanted to know that she was developing relationships with current clients, providing good service and developing her book.
“This is not a thousand-person law firm, so you can more easily gauge where you are in the process and if you’re doing what you need to do,” she said.
Miller & Martin has about 125 lawyers in Chattanooga, Nashville and Atlanta. Of the 46 lawyers in its local office, 29 are partners.
At King & Spalding, which has almost 1,000 lawyers, the associate evaluation committee starts meeting in August to assess partner candidates nominated by practice group leaders—reading their files and numerous written reviews from partners, then talking to the candidates.
Candidates are not expected to have their own book of business, said Ciatti, the committee head.
“What we’re really looking for at this level—obviously they are very talented lawyers—is do they have the ability to grow work for themselves and others down the road,” Ciatti said.
The committee considers the practices and business plans of each candidate, he said, assessing whether they have the “technical expertise, practice focus and ability to bond with clients,” needed to generate a book of business over time.
Only 35 percent of the 95 new Atlanta partners are women—a gender gap that has persisted for years.
“I think there’s a bias that still exists—some spoken and some unspoken—among senior partners about who they take under their wing,” Rahman said.
But what she often sees with her lawyer clients is that women opt out of the partnership track because of the hours.
“I talk to a lot of female associates of all different levels. A lot of them are frustrated with the partnership track and the lack of flexibility for women, especially when trying to balance a family,” Rahman said, noting that when it comes to domestic responsibilities for young parents, “the majority still falls on their shoulders.”
“A lot of women lawyers contact me wanting to go in-house because of the lifestyle—or to a smaller firm with no billable or less of a billable requirement than a large firm,” Rahman said.
Women lawyers also gravitate toward nonpartnership-track roles that large firms such as Kilpatrick, Seyfarth Shaw and Greenberg Traurig have started offering, which still allow for substantive work, but with fewer hours.
When Ashby was being considered for partner last year, she’d just had her first child, who’s now 1½ years old. She said balancing her job and her family was certainly a concern. “It’s a concern for everyone,” she added. But her husband became a stay-at-home dad, which helped enormously.
“I couldn’t do it without my husband,” Ashby said, adding that her parents also help when she needs to work late or travel.
Ashby said she generally gets into the office between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and leaves around 5:30—in time to get home for dinner with her family. “So far I’ve been able to make a family and law work,” she said.