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In a recent article, “Being a Law Firm Partner Was Once a Job for Life. That Culture Is All but Dead,” Sara Randazzo, writing for the Wall Street Journal, reports on recent trends in Big Law partnership and profitability over the past decade. According to data collected by ALM Intelligence, the percentage of equity partners across the Am Law 100 has been declining for the past ten years, with the percentage of nonequity partners steadily increasing. ALM Intelligence’s data revealed that the equity tier was roughly 78% larger than the non-equity tier in 2008. Now, it’s only 27% larger. The conventional explanation for the growth of the two-tier system is that it produces higher profits per equity partner, thus solidifying the prestige of the law firm and improving its ability to attract the best legal talent, the article highlights.

As Randazzo reports, the newly demanding and data-driven model of the law firm has changed the culture of the business entirely. “Being named a partner once meant joining a band of lawyers who jointly tended to longtime clients and took home comfortable, and roughly equal, paychecks. Job security was virtually guaranteed, and partners rarely jumped ship. That model, and the culture that grew up around it, is all but dead. Law firms are now often partnerships in name only,” Randazzo notes. “At the modern law firm, not all partners are created equal, and data and billings rule. In the new paradigm, lawyers are expendable, and partners may jump to a competitor for the right amount of money, taking clients with them on the way out,” Randazzo adds.

According to the article, the rise of non-equity partnerships has been criticized on a number of grounds. Most significantly, as noted in the article, it lets equity partners jack up the billing rates of non-equity partners, often to north of $1,000, without having to share the wealth with them (or take a hit in their “profits per partner” rankings, which consider only equity partners). “No firm embodies the changes more than Kirkland & Ellis,” Randazzo reports. “Over the past decade, Kirkland has become known for making high-price offers to rising stars at competitors, for $10 million a year or more in some cases. It has embraced the two-tiered partner system, made up of a junior class paid a set salary and an inner circle of equity partners, who split the firm’s profits. The changes have pushed the spread between Kirkland’s highest- and lowest-paid partners to 43-to-1. Among its equity partners, the spread is nearing 9 to 1,” (as quoted in The Wall Street Journal).

According to another article by Law.com, some law firms are still holding on to the old partnership ethos even as the world changes around them. A handful of law firms including New York-based Cleary Gottlieb and Cravath Swaine & Moore still operate under a lockstep compensation system, which pays partners in a relatively tight band based on seniority, rather than how much revenue they bring in. At the same time, some law firms are new to the idea of a two-tier partnership. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Willkie Farr & Gallagher both reported the presence of non-equity partners—seven and 10, respectively—for the first time this year. Law firm leaders said the move is intended to reward promising young lawyers earlier and make the firm more competitive in recruiting,” (as quoted in Law.com).

See highlights from the full article on The Wall Street Journal.

Contact Bill Sugarman for more information.

Law360 released results from its fifth annual Diversity Snapshot, which surveyed 300 law firms on their minority representation at the non-partner and partner level. According to Law360’s report, minorities make up 16.4% of all attorneys and 9.5% of partners in law firms across the country. Firms with the highest levels of minority attorneys offered benefits including formal mentorship programs, business marketing workshops, and integration into the firm’s community at large, the report revealed.

In the biggest category of ‘Big Law’ firms (600+ attorneys), Wilson Sonsini tops the list as the largest firm with the most minority lawyers this year, with 20.4% minority equity partners. Additional ‘Big Law’ firms with the highest percentage of minority attorneys included Morrison & Foerster (17.3%), Paul Hastings (13.8%), and Cleary Gottlieb (13.1%). For medium to large sized firms (300-599 attorneys), the top firms for minorities included Fragomen, Del Rey (23.5%), Fenwick & West (13.8%), and Shearman & Sterling (13.2%). For the smallest sized firms (150-299 attorneys), the best firms for minorities were Atkinson Andelson (32.1%), Best Best & Krieger (23.2%), and Munger Tolles (19.0%).

“The top firms in each size category have demonstrable diversity levels of at least 20% of all attorneys at the firm, creating examples of what a more diverse and more inclusive workforce can look like” Law360 notes. “It’s no secret that the legal industry is one of the least diverse professions in the country. But some law firms have made notable progress, and the firms listed are making some headway and turning longstanding diversity goals into workplace realities,” (as quoted in Law360).

See the full article and rankings on Law360.

Contact Bill Sugarman for more information.