When I finished law school in 1993, the expectation of joining a firm, making partner there, and staying for the entirety of a career was beginning to fade. By this time, it’s almost an anomaly for a young lawyer to walk that path. In 2006, a NALP study (reported in a Law.com article titled Firms Losing Top Talent to Clients) showed that 19% of associates leave their firms after their first year in practice, 40% leave by their third year, and 78% leave by their fifth year. Where the departing associates go varies, of course — some to other firms, some in-house, some outside the law entirely. But the bottom line is that for the majority of large firm associates, becoming a homegrown partner is no longer the presumed outcome of joining a firm as an associate.
The often-repeated “joke” that partnership is like winning a pie-eating contest only to find that the prize is more pie may well cast light on why the career path has changed so dramatically. Equally likely is the emphasis on profits-per-partner and the rising level of what’s an “acceptable” profit. Whatever the reason, an associate is well-advised to consider early what path she’d like her career to take. Although the paths don’t necessarily diverge completely (because, for instance, building credibility and respect with colleagues and clients pays dividends regardless of which career path the lawyer selects), it’s possibly to think strategically toward a goal only if that goal is clear.
This month’s Law Practice Magazine is one of the best resources I’ve seen recently for hitting the highlights of the career route decision in short firm. Articles include Making Partner — or Not: Is It In, Up or Over in the 21st Century? (reviewing modern alternatives in law firms to the old rule of make partner or get out), Is There Life After Law Firms?: Getting Off the Partnership Path (reviewing some options outside law firms), Going In-House? Prepare for Culture Shock and Partnership Criteria: The Ground Rules of Moving Up (criteria and issues involved in making partner). Also included are two articles written by lawyers who’ve chosen careers outside the practice: From Antitrust Lawyer to Executive Coach (written by Deborah Katz Solomon, a remarkable coach whom I’m delighted to call mentor, colleague, and friend) and From the Courtroom to the Classroom (the story of a lawyer who has moved to teaching after 25 years in practice).
While the articles included are probably not sufficient to inform career decisions fully, if you’ve been considering your long-term career plan, this issue is a must-have. For newer lawyers who have perhaps been drifting along and hoping for the best, this issue will help you think strategically and clearly about what you want from practice and what you’re willing to put into it. It’s great weekend reading. Enjoy.