Denver Bar Association
November 2005
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The Declining Trend of Partnership

by Daynel L. Hooker

The allure of partnership typically has been part of the equation for anyone who has attended law school and envisioned a successful, profitable career, particularly in the last 10 years, as salaries for new associates in medium and large firms have skyrocketed.

Despite the rise in associate salaries, there has been a decrease in the number of associates making partner nationally. This decline can be linked to two factors: the ability to make partner and the interest in doing what it takes to make partner.

The national trend, however, is not supported by local numbers. According to statistics submitted by firms and compiled by the National Association of Law Placement (NALP), there has been a gradual increase in the number of associate attorneys promoted to partners. In 2000, 17 large firms with roots in Colorado or national firms with offices in Denver promoted 27 attorneys to partnership. In 2002, those same 17 firms promoted 36 to partner; in 2003 the number was 45; and 42 were promoted in 2004. However, from 2001 through 2004, 13 firms promoted no attorneys to partner. Lawyers are not necessarily planning a career at one or two firms. Many young lawyers start their careers at large firms with the goal of transitioning to smaller and/or boutique firms, in-house positions, or gaining enough experience to hang their own shingle.

One of the reasons for the abandonment of pursuing partnership? Desirability.

Today’s legal environment and the value systems of associates are having a significant impact on what’s desirable to younger attorneys. With larger law firms dissolving at a growing rate and Enron-type scandals increasing potential liability, some associates are choosing other routes to success.

Kristal L. Bernert is one young lawyer who found the culture at a smaller firm more
One such example is attorney and Certified Public Accountant Kristal L. Bernert, a 1997 Colorado University Law School graduate. Upon graduation, Bernert fielded offers from 17th Street firms and a few of the "Big Five" accounting firms. She spent her first seven years practicing at two well-known Denver firms. In 2002, she decided to venture on her own as the primary partner at KLB Services, LLC.

"I never wanted to be a partner at a large firm," said 33-year-old Bernert, a Colorado native and former president of the Sam Cary Bar Association. "I just knew it wasn’t my destiny. The big firm culture is too conservative for me. I’m a little bit more progressive than what big firms tend to want in young associates. Everyone doesn’t have a big firm personality. You can be successful at other things."

Bernert said the best metaphor she uses is that law schools produce squares and every so often they produce circles that don’t conform to what big firms are looking for. She suggests that some local firms are trying harder to work with the talents law school graduates have and are not so intent on molding new attorneys into the squares.

Partnership allure seems to have fallen prey to Generation Xers — those born roughly between 1960 and 1980, and who view the work-life balance differently from their baby-boomer predecessors. They want to have lives and interests outside work, regardless of whether they have children. They often view partners, who’ve sacrificed their lives to be valued by their firms, as workaholics. Many Gen. Xers aren’t interested in making the sacrifices necessary to become a partner — not only because of the long hours required, but because the payoff doesn’t seem worth it.

Jason Cuerdon
"I just didn’t think I’d fit into the corporate firm atmosphere," said criminal defense attorney Jason Cuerdon, a 2000 Howard University Law School grad. "Plus partnership is a marriage and like marriages, I have not seen many of them that work."

Cuerdon said he had opportunities to apply and interview with large criminal defense firms, but decided to strike out on his own after a year-and-a-half of working for one such firm. He likes the freedom of deciding who his clients are, where the cases will go and what his work schedule looks like.

"I calculate that I spend just as much time working for my clients than if I were working in a large firm,’’ said Cuerdon, who operates a solo practice. "I just enjoy freedom. I may lack the big firm resources, but I still do a good job for my clients. Plus, when I’m not in court or seeing clients, I show up to work in flip-flops and shorts. I don’t think that would play well on 17th Street"

There are also those associates who do not select the partnership track and fail to fit into either of the above categories. More than a dozen associates interviewed locally and nationally for this story agreed to speak with The Docket, but only if they could remain anonymous.

Suzanne (whose name has been changed), a member of Order of the Coif of a top 30 law school and third-year associate at a Wall Street firm, said she’s counting the days until she can be free of debt and hand in her notice. She said she accepted the offer to work at a big firm to pay off her law school debt before moving on to a more meaningful career. Suzanne has nothing against her firm; she just believes she can use her skills to do more significant work. The cost of her law school education — more than $100,000 — prevented her from bypassing the big firm route altogether because it’s the quickest way to earn a large sum of money.

"Would I do it again?" Suzanne said. "Absolutely. I don’t regret the experience at all. I’ve learned so much, but partnership was never a consideration for me."

Another dynamic comes into play when considering women and minority lawyers. According to a September 2004 article in the American Bar Association’s GP|Solo Magazine, these individuals may lose interest in partnership because they do not perceive it to be as accessible as it is to white males. Many of these lawyers begin private practice with confidence in their chances for partnership, but later become skeptical of the equality of their opportunity.

GP|Solo Magazine also found that: "Many associates no longer trust that partners care about helping them develop and seeing them succeed. They believe that some partners view them as ‘fungible production machines.’ Accordingly, some associates are suspicious that even if they perform well for seven or eight years the particular partners for whom they’ve worked may turn their backs on them. The associates are skeptical that the partners will keep their side of the bargain."

While there are various reasons why some young lawyers are not interested in partnership, those who are willing to forego partnerships in favor of a balanced personal and professional life nevertheless are often strong performers in the professional arena. And firms don’t have to look far. Just look around you or flip through the local legal directory and you’ll find it.

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