Back when I was a lawyer, the path to a partner position was well-defined: Graduate from law school. Join a firm as an associate and hope you become a partner after seven-plus years of exceeding your billable hour requirements. Or exit quietly or if you didn’t make the cut. This “up or out” system was the norm in legal careers for years but client and employee demands are now shaking up this traditional model, resulting in more career options than an equity partnership.
Some of these new options address the need to attain greater work-life balance. To attract and retain top talent in an increasingly competitive hiring environment, more firms are offering flexible schedules and telecommuting opportunities while others are experimenting with non-partnership-track positions that offer lower salaries, but require fewer billable hours and less travel.
These new roles go by many different names, such as “staff attorney,” “income partner” and “career associate,” to name just a few. And since non-partner tracks have emerged relatively recently, it’s often up to each law firm to define the positions and criteria. Regardless of the job titles, they have one thing in common: They’re often good options for legal professionals who want to continue doing challenging and stimulating work without having to sacrifice their personal lives.
Clients also are driving this change in lawyer jobs. The latest report from our Future Law Office research program outlines how clients are demanding more cost-efficient legal services. These demands, in turn, are prompting firms to reevaluate their business models, add options such as alternative billing, and hire more non-equity lawyers.
Whether to opt out of the partner track depends on a lawyer’s professional and personal goals. Here are some of pros and cons of the non-partner track:
Advantages of the non-partner track
These alternative legal careers typically come with limited travel requirements, and their work hours are more standard — closer to 40 hours a week than 80. Another advantage is that these types of positions rarely involve staff management or business development, so they allow attorneys to focus more intently on practicing law and working with clients and relieve them from the pressure of having to bring in new business.
Disadvantages of the non-partner track
The main drawbacks of working outside the partner track relate to pay and prestige. Although many staff lawyers are well paid, their wages are usually one-quarter to one-half less than what their partner-track colleagues make. In addition, the compensation for non-equity partners is based mainly on salary, plus performance bonuses and perhaps a portion of the profit pool. In short, neither their starting salary nor total annual compensation will likely ever match their partner-track colleagues’ compensation.
Other types of lawyer jobs
Another factor to keep in mind is that it’s not an “either-or” situation: Legal careers for attorneys encompass more than just the partner and non-partner tracks. For challenging and meaningful work that pays well, consider corporate law or in-house counsel, academia (including administration), government positions, business and finance, solo practice, legal recruiting, politics, judgeship and more.
The two-tier concept — partner track and non-partner track — was a novelty two decades ago. Today, it’s today a full-blown trend, in use by a large and growing number of law firms. Clients want lower billing rates, but not at the cost of receiving less service. Gen Xers and Millennials want interesting and challenging lawyer jobs, but not at the expense of a rich and fulfilling personal life. Attorneys who don’t equate success with making partner can have long and productive legal careers, while still enjoying family, friends and other interests.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.