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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.

The National Law Journal released its annual NLJ 500 rankings, which analyzes headcount data on the nation’s largest 500 law firms. According to the report, the number of lawyers in the NLJ 500 grew 2.5% in 2018 to 169,477, and the average firm size rose by eight lawyers last year to 339. By comparison, the NLJ 500 grew by 1% in 2017 and by about 2% in 2016. Partnerships expanded by just over 1% last year, driven by nonequity partnership growth of 3.8% in 2018, the report also revealed.

According to the report, three firms in the top ten saw upward movement including Latham & WatkinsKirkland & Ellis, and Morgan Lewis. New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston were the top cities with the most lawyers in this year’s NLJ 500. Additionally, one group that showed unexpected growth in the 2019 NLJ 500 was the category of “other” lawyers, which encompasses counsel, senior attorneys, of counsel and staff attorneys. This cohort showed a net gain of 1,171 lawyers—up 6.4% in 2018. That’s compared to a net gain of 99 lawyers, or just 0.5%, in 2017.

“The 2019 NLJ 500 tells the story of more growth in 2018 than we saw in the previous two years,” said Lisa Helem, Editor-in-Chief, The National Law Journal. “Overall, the 2019 NLJ 500 findings, especially at the top of the list, along with profit increases for much of the Am Law 200, reflect an industry enjoying rising demand and faster growth. The average head count increase—still in the low single digits—is a far cry from the 4% or 5% growth firms saw in the pre-recession period from 2005 to 2008. But given the ugly contraction that followed, there’s something to be said for this year’s more modest gains,” (as quoted in The National Law Journal).

See more highlights from NLJ 500 rankings on The National Law Journal.

Contact Bill Sugarman for more information.

Law360 released its sixth annual Glass Ceiling Report, which surveyed 300 law firms on gender diversity and ranked firms based on the percentage of female equity partners in the United States. According to the report, women make up 36% of all attorneys and 25% of equity partners in law firms across the country. Firms with the highest levels of female equity partners tend to focus on building a clear pipeline to equity partnership for women and offer benefits like work schedule flexibility, mentorship programs and greater leadership opportunities in order to retain top-performing attorneys.

Among the 300 law firms surveyed, small firms (20-149 attorneys) had the highest percentage of female equity partners, including Sideman & Bancroft (63.6%), Culhane Meadows (60.0%), Brundo Testan (60.0%), Wilson Turner (55.6%) and Walsworth (50.0%).

For medium to large sized firms (150-599 attorneys), the top five best firms for female partners were Fragomen Del Rey (47.1%), Nossaman (42.9%), Hanson Bridgett (38.2%), Shipman & Goodwin (32.2%) and Best Best & Krieger (32.1%).

In the biggest category of ‘Big Law’ firms (600+ attorneys), Littler Mendelson tops the list of the biggest firms with the most female representation this year, with 29.6% female equity partners. Additional firms with the highest percentage of female equity partners include Jackson Lewis (28.3%), Faegre Baker Daniels (24.3%), Akerman (22.9%), and Ogletree Deakins (21.7%).

See highlights from the full article and rankings on Law360.

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Contact Bill Sugarman for more information.

The American Lawyer released its annual New Partners Survey, which included responses from 400 lawyers promoted to firm partnerships in 2015, 2016 or 2017. The report revealed that an overwhelming 88 percent of new partners said their firms adequately prepared them for partnership. Almost 80 percent of new partners who answered the survey said their business development efforts increased, along with their compensation and information they received regarding their firm’s finances.

The ALM survey this year also found that two-thirds of new partners were elevated into non-equity or income partner roles. About 40 percent had spent seven, eight or nine years as associates at the firm where they made partner, and more than half had never changed firms. No single practice area dominated in partner promotions, though litigation represented almost a quarter of the survey pool.

See highlights of the full report and article on The American Lawyer.

Contact Bill Sugarman for more information.