Partner at a law firm

When a lawyer “makes partner,” they transition from being an employee of the firm who is paid a salary to become a part-owner of the firm and share in the firm’s profits and liabilities. This is what many conclude when they think of making partner, but what does it really mean to be a partner at a law firm?

Yes, partners earn more but not right away

Over the first few years, a young lawyer who makes partner may have to endure significant costs in addition to increased taxes. This could involve significant “buy-in” fees and many firms even implement a compensation formula which makes it difficult initially for lawyers who are developing a client base to make more or as much money as they did as associates.  While partners make more money than non-partners, generally, it could take a few years for partners to start seeing real financial rewards from their investments and this comes at the end of the year when the firm distributes the profits. 

More responsibility means a lot more pressure

Ever heard the saying “making partner is like winning a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie?” If not, this phrase sums up what making partner actually means: partners continue to perform much of the work that they did as associates, but also have additional tasks that may add up to hundreds of hours of work per year, much of which is not directly compensated.  So what does it mean to be partner at a law firm? Being partner involves:

  • Pressure to bill hours – the pressure to generate work and bill hours is never-ending. If there is one bad year of low billable hours, they risk losing their job.
  • Pressure to generate business – partners are expected to get business and generate business constantly.
  • Pressure to maintain business – the performance of a partner is greatly dependant upon their ability to keep generating business. If they struggle with this, they will receive a large amount of pressure from management as well as a deduction in income.
  • Pressure to increase business – partners are only as good as their last year of collections, so there is constant pressure to generate additional business year after year.
  • Pressure to give others work – if a partner is generating a decent amount of business, they start to become evaluated based upon their ability to give work to others in the firm.
  • Pressure to be on the right side of management – many important matters are decided by committees, so partners also face pressure to be on the right side of management and decision making people. 

Being partner is demanding of your time, energy, and mental health

Many associates believe that if they commit to working harder and longer to make partner, then they will be rewarded with riches and overall better quality of life. While this may be true, eventually, the reality is a lot more hard work including spending significant amounts of time on things like client development, firm marketing, and the actual business of the law firm. None of this is billable, yet it is necessary. Being partner involves a lot of time, pressure, and stress, not to mention endurance and a strong mental capacity to face each day with a new round of energy. The result for many is burning out, either along the partnership track or years into making partner. 

Nothing is certain even when you make partner

As law firms grow in size and scope and start developing complex hierarchy structures with multi-tiered partnerships, rising to partner, never mind equity partner, is against the odds. Then you have actually making partner which doesn’t bring certainties with the title either.  While the rewards for being partner are potentially substantial, the risk is higher too. For example, a partner’s precise compensation depends upon many factors such as the work that they have brought to the firm, their billable hours, and the overall profitability of the firm. This means that even if they are constantly bringing new business into the firm and they’re hitting all of their goals if the firm hasn’t had a good year overall, they won’t have a good year either.  Many law associates think that making partner will result in stability, but in reality, it doesn’t. 

What does it mean to be a partner at a law firm?

Contrary to popular belief, making partner means working harder than ever. While the rewards can be greater, you have to work to achieve them and nothing is ever certain.

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