Many law firms eased back on partner promotions last year, but the slowdown was less pronounced in New York—especially in corporate practices.
Amid slack demand for legal services nationwide in 2016 and an uncertain economic climate, the 25 law firms employing the largest number of lawyers in the state as ranked by the NYLJ 100 elevated 308 attorneys to partnership. That marks a 14 percent drop from the last round, when the group elevated 353 lawyers to partnership.
See related chart: New Partners at the 25 Largest Firms in New York
Firms did not generally indicate whether the promotions were equity or non-equity, but according to National Law Journal data, about 15 of the 25 firms have non-equity and equity tiers.
Law firm consultant Brad Hildebrandt of Hildebrandt Consulting said it would be a mistake to read too much into the decreases. “It’s not a big difference really,” he said of the year-over-year statistics.
Given attrition rates and a limited talent pool, the firms know it’s important to promote from within, Hildebrandt said.
“I think they’re trying to give a stronger message to their younger people that there is a career path, that partnership is not closed,” Hildebrandt said. “It’s smart for the law firms to be bringing talent up where it has spent an enormous amount on training and development.”
As in years past, the New York firms’ partnership classes were dominated by corporate practice groups, followed by litigation. “Corporate and finance and regulatory [work] is what has actually produced a lot of the profitability [in New York], so it wouldn’t be surprising to see a firm try to build that,” Hildebrandt said.
Three of the four promotions at Cahill Gordon & Reindel were in corporate practices, as were 20 of the 41 firmwide promotions at White & Case, for example.
At Latham & Watkins, 16 of 27 partner promotions firmwide were in corporate. In its New York office, all of its elevated attorneys were on the transactional side of the firm.
“It’s really just a function of who comes up through the ranks and is in the promotion class,” said Michèle Penzer, managing partner of Latham’s New York office. “This year in particular it happened to be heavily weighted towards transactional.”
Ups and (Mostly) Downs
Ropes & Gray promoted 9 attorneys to partner firmwide in 2016, compared to 17 the year before. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom elevated 11 attorneys firmwide and six in New York in April 2016, down from 15 nationally and seven in New York in its 2015 round of promotions.
Sidley Austin promoted 16 attorneys across its offices, down from 24 in its previous class. Kirkland & Ellis, which had the largest partnership class, promoted 81 attorneys firmwide, compared to 90 the year prior.
The drop wasn’t as substantial in the firms’ New York offices. The top 25 law firms elevated 115 lawyers to partner in New York, compared to 124 the year prior. Ten of the top 25 New York firms surveyed increased their partnership ranks in the city.
Davis Polk & Wardwell, which promoted 11 attorneys firmwide to partnership, elevated nine attorneys in New York, up from four the year prior. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher elevated 13 attorneys firmwide and four in New York, up from eight firmwide and two in New York the year prior.
Schulte Roth & Zabel, which made no partnership promotions in New York in 2016, made four firmwide in New York in its most recent round of promotions.
Still, most firms had an overall decrease in the number of attorneys elevated to partnership in New York.
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison promoted three lawyers to partnership in New York, compared to six the year prior. Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson cut its New York partnership class in half, elevating four attorneys.
Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker promoted three attorneys in New York and Willkie Farr & Gallagher elevated two, down from nine and five, respectively. And Sullivan & Cromwell only made one partner promotion in its New York office, down from five in the previous round.
As the number of promotions fell across the New York firms, the number of women promoted also decreased.
In 2014, 24 percent of new partners at the 25 law firms were women. In 2015, that number increased to 32 percent. Last year, 27 percent of the new partners were women, accounting for 84 out of the 308 partners elevated.
“I would hope to see the numbers increase year to year, but you recognize that there are going to be fluctuations,” law firm consultant Melissa McClenaghan Martin said.
All of Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s three partner advancements were women in 2016. Women made up nearly half or more of the new partner class at four firms. Two of Willkie Farr’s three new partners are women; three of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy’s five new partners are women; and 16 of White & Case’s 41 new partners are also women.
In contrast, Paul Weiss, Sullivan & Cromwell, and Shearman & Sterling elevated no women to partnership last year. Six of the 25 firms surveyed only promoted one woman in the partnership class.