When is a partner not a partner?
One of biglaw’s profitability secrets relates to what “partner” means. In increasingly common two-tier partnerships, only equity partners have an ownership interest that translates into the stunning average incomes reported in the Am Law 100. (In 2008, the average was $1.26 million.) The distinction should interest students who seek biglaw jobs and want to know what any particular firm is really like.
So where can they learn the truth? Every law student knows about the NALP Foundation. It’s the only organization that collects comprehensive personnel information directly from major U.S. law firms. It publishes much of it in a Directory that is every student’s bible of prospective employers. But data on firms’ non-equity/equity partner distribution is conspicuously absent from NALP’s reports, as is any attempt to track non-equity partners’ careers.
In December 2009, NALP decided NOT to collect data distinguishing equity from non-equity partners. When disappointed law students heard the news, NALP responded that it would begin compiling such information. It then backtracked because law firms balked.
On April 6, a prominent group of 75 attorneys, judges, and legal scholars protested NALP’s decision on the grounds that tracking non-equity partners was important to assessing a firm’s true gender and racial diversity. Of course, they’re correct.
But there’s another reason to provide students with this information. According to Am Law, between 1999 and 2008, the nation’s 100 biggest firms increased their non-equity partner ranks threefold, but the number of equity partners grew by only one-third. What is the fate of most big firm non-equity partners? Don’t ask; don’t tell.
Could that be the real story behind NALP’s reluctance to cross so many of its biglaw board members, advisors, and benefactors?
NALP said it would reconsider the issue at its April 26 meeting. Will anyone notice? Will anyone care?
For students who understand the issue well enough to do the research, American Lawyer lends a hand. Although it doesn’t have diversity information, the annual Am Law 100 issue publishes overall breakdowns of the largest firms’ equity/non-equity partners. So why not let NALP take the next step? What happened to all of those biglaw free market enthusiasts who usually argue that complete, easily available information facilitates better decisions? What could be more relevant than a firm’s answer to a fundamental question: who are your real partners and whither goest the vast cadre of attorneys who survive the associate gauntlet only fail in their efforts to overcome the final hurdle into the ownership ranks?