A survey of New York’s largest firms shows a slight uptick in the number of lawyers promoted to partner last year.
But the relatively low number of promotions overall reflects a post-recession trend of firms closely managing their equity partnership ranks while demand for legal services remains flat.
The 24 law firms employing the most lawyers in the state—the top quarter of the New York Law Journal 100 rankings—promoted 100 New York lawyers in 2013, compared with 84 in 2012 and 93 in 2011.
“We’ve seen very careful management of equity partnership head count,” said Gretta Rusanow, senior client adviser at Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group,
Based on 2013 third quarter data, equity partner head count at Am Law 100 firms, which includes nearly all of the 24 firms, was down about 0.5 percent, a larger drop than in firms with fewer attorneys, Rusanow said.
“There are more partners leaving [large law firm partnerships] than being promoted,” either through retirements or attrition, Rusanow said.
“Firms are very focused on running a tight ship and this is a reflection of that—that performance is important in an environment where demand and revenue growth are hard to come by,” she said.
Many of the gains in New York partner promotions were slight. For instance, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Davis Polk & Wardwell; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; Cravath, Swaine & Moore; and Proskauer Rose increased their partner promotions in New York by one in 2013.
Six of the 24 firms promoted fewer New York partners, including Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; White & Case; Kirkland & Ellis; and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Meanwhile, firms in the top quarter of the NYLJ 100 promoted 88 women firmwide, about 29 percent of new partners made in all offices.
As Am Law Daily noted this year, several large firms promoted no women to partner in their latest promotions. Among them are Davis Polk, Cleary Gottlieb, Gibson Dunn, and Schulte Roth & Zabel.
A few firms boosted their numbers of new partners. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman each promoted six new partners in New York last year, a significant increase from 2012. Sullivan & Cromwell promoted seven New York lawyers, up by four promotions in the city.
The NYLJ’s analysis of firm-wide and New York figures do not include Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, ranked No. 18 in the New York Law Journal 100. The firm, which last announced new partner promotions in August 2012, will announce promotions in March, a spokeswoman said.
Firms generally didn’t indicate whether their promotions were to equity partnership. Thirteen of the top quarter firms have nonequity partners, according to data from the National Law Journal 350 survey. Firms with only equity partners include Skadden, Paul Weiss, Davis Polk, Simpson Thacher, Sullivan & Cromwell, Cleary Gottlieb, Debevoise & Plimpton, Cravath, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, Kirkland, Schulte and Jones Day, according to the NLJ data.
Promotions in New York
At Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, seven of the firm’s 13 new partners are in New York, an increase firmwide and in Manhattan. Peter Calamari, managing partner of the New York office, said the firm increased its new partner class because it had a “talented class of people” last year. “We just happened to have quite a number in the New York office,” he said.
“Our practice is international and therefore people who are in New York might be working on a case in California and vice versa,” Calamari said.
The firm’s growing head count and expansion into practice areas such as international arbitration and products liability also makes more lawyers eligible for partnership, he said.
Willkie Farr & Gallagher also moderately increased its New York and firmwide promotions. A combination of talented lawyers, “a good year” and some retirements led to the new partner class, said Willkie co-chairman Steven Gartner.
“Retirements are one factor in the decision to make new partners because we look at overall year-to-year partner growth. They are not dispositive, nor is it the case that very talented associates cannot make partner if there are no retirements,” he said.
Gartner acknowledged that the sluggish legal market in recent years and the traditional “up or out” policy for associates of New York-based firms has made the road to partnership a steep climb.
“In the last several years, the legal market is not growing. Revenue has been a challenge for every firm,” he said, getting better only “to a modest degree” lately.
“Generally, law firms are much more disciplined about more partners and that includes us. So in some respects, it’s harder to make partner,” Gartner said.
Gibson Dunn’s new partner class included no Manhattan-based lawyers. Shearman & Sterling and Schulte Roth & Zabel each promoted only one New York partner, like the year before.
Ken Doran, Gibson Dunn chairman and managing partner, said partnership classes vary each year. He said the New York office had four promotions the year before, and it added four lateral partners in 2013. “New York is our largest office and one of our fastest growing offices,” he said.
Addressing Shearman’s figures, Doreen Lilienfeld, a Shearman partner and co-adviser of its WISER initiative, which promotes women’s success and retention, said more than half of its attorneys reside outside the United States.
Lilienfeld joined the firm’s New York office, transferred to California and made partner on the heels of the dot-com bubble, then moved back to New York. “At Shearman, making partner in a particular office doesn’t mean you’re in a career path at that office,” Lilienfeld. “We have a lot more fluidity than other firms.”
A Schulte spokeswoman declined to comment.
Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker announced six attorneys were promoted to partner for 2014, a drop from 17 two years ago. The promotions were to contract partner positions, said Julie Evans, managing partner of the firm’s New York City office.
Evans said a total of 16 other attorneys were promoted to of counsel and equity partner positions last year, changes typically announced internally. The firm has the same quality standards for of counsel and contract partners, Evans said.
Two-thirds of Wilson Elser’s new contract partners are women. Evans said the firm has mentoring and support programs and multiple firm offices are led by women, all of which “creates a great environment for women to succeed.”
At Willkie, the firm’s new partner class included one woman, Maria-Leticia Ossa-Daza. Gartner, Willkie’s co-chair, said while diversity is considered during partnership discussions, it is not dispositive of the analysis.
Ossa-Daza grew up in Colombia, joined Willkie in Paris and came to the New York office in 2006.
“I was made partner because I am a smart and skilled lawyer,” she said. “Associates are made partner because they are smart lawyers not just because of other demographic characteristics.” She said the qualities that led to her promotion were teamwork, client responsiveness and hard work, which doesn’t necessarily mean working every weekend.
“You need to find the right balance and you need to love what you do,” said Ossa-Daza, a mother to a six-year-old daughter.
At Quinn Emanuel, Calamari said candidates’ demographics are not considered. “We are very talent oriented,” he said.
Lilienfeld at Shearman also said gender is not considered. The firm evaluates internal performance reviews, feedback from clients and, increasingly, business development and client retention skills, she said.
“It’s a level playing field, whether you’re a woman, man or ethnic minority,” she said.
Two of Shearman’s seven new partners, about 28 percent, are women this year. She said it’s “a fantastic statistic” compared to about 20 years ago when she started practicing law. “There’s always room for improvement both in the profession and at any particular law firm. It starts with a culture of inclusion and I think firms including our firm, are more focused on this issue than ever before,” Lilienfeld said.
Lilienfeld said women in-house counsel are increasingly making purchase decisions on law firm spend. “It’s hard to pitch to a general counsel, who is a woman, with a team of only men,” she said.
Total new partner classes at 13 firms increased last year, some returning to 2011 levels or near them.
The number of new partners firmwide at all 24 firms totaled about 307, almost even from the number in 2012. In 2011 they promoted 348 firm-wide.
White & Case, which spiked to 28 partner promotions in 2012, dropped to 18 in 2013, near its 2011 new partner levels. Jones Day promoted 34 to partner, 11 fewer than the previous two years.
At Sidley Austin, new partner classes firm-wide dropped to 24 in 2013 from 26 in 2012 and 33 in 2011. Sidley executive committee partners Steven Bierman and Samir Gandhi said the number of promotions is not a direct result of the market. “We take a longer view,” Bierman said.
“It’s not really ‘times are good, so we’re going to make tons of partners.’ We look at each individual and how they’re going to integrate into the office” and the firm’s culture, Gandhi said.
@| Christine Simmons can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ chlsimmons.