In May 2009, The American Lawyer reported that Am Law 100 firms had increased the number of non-equity partners threefold since 1999, but the number of equity partners grew by less than one-third. As big law leaders continue to pull up the ladder, what will come from the growing cadre of partners-in-name-only? Other than some short-term money for equity partners, nothing good.
Historically, most two-tier firms employed a simple strategy for non-equity partners: up-or-out. Within a reasonable period of time (for no benign reason, it’s gotten longer), non-equity partners either proved themselves worthy of elevation or moved on. Limited exceptions included specialized niche players who could stay indefinitely.
An article in the February 2012 issue of The American Lawyer, “Crazy Like a Fox,” suggests another option: permanent non-equity partners.
The Economic Case
Authors Edwin B. Reeser and Patrick J. McKenna offer financial justifications for the strategy. First, they say, clients unwilling to pay high hourly rates for first- and second-year associates have an easier time swallowing non-equity partner rates, even though they are much greater.
Sometimes, maybe. But clients are now scrutinizing the match between attorneys and their tasks. Using an unnecessarily expensive non-equity partner to perform associate work is dangerous.
Second, they argue, associate recruitment and training are expensive, with each new associate costing $250,000 to $300,000. As a class, Reeser and McKenna assert, “associates do not make money for the firm until sometime in the end of the third or even the fourth year.”
Maybe. But at current hourly rates and required minimum billables, the payback is probably sooner. (Do the math using an average profit margin of forty percent, which is conservative.) But their larger point is correct: non-equity partners are a source of leverage that for the Am Law 50 has doubled since 1985 — from an average of 1.75 to 3.54.
Whatever the debatable short-term economic gain, the long-run cost of expanding the non-equity ranks and making them permanent is far greater.
For starters, such lawyers become second class citizens. They know it. Everyone in the firm knows it. They may be decent, hard-working people. But once they receive the scarlet letter of permanent non-equity status, their morale plummets.
It’s understandable. After all, throughout their lives they succeeded at everything they tried — outstanding college record, good grades at a top law school. They’re intelligent and ambitious, otherwise firms wouldn’t have hired them in the first place. But then, after years of hard work they learn that they won’t reach the next level and never will. Only magical thinking can wish away the demoralizing impact of that message.
Any firm creating a permanent subclass of such attorneys takes an individual problem and makes it an institutional one. For example, if permanent non-equity partners do meaningful and fulfilling work, they’ll deprive younger attorneys of those increasingly scarce opportunities. That expands the morale problem into the senior associate ranks where career satisfaction languishes at historic lows.
Conversely, if the permanent non-equity partners are performing tasks that other attorneys avoid, that creates other difficulties. Reeser and McKenna note that such practitioners sometimes “take on non-billable leadership positions…involving pro bono, diversity, recruiting, training, and professional development.” Unfortunately, there’s no better way to send a message of management’s indifference to such pursuits than by putting the B-team in charge.
Finally, the authors suggest that a non-equity track enables firms to “retain some whiz-bang lawyers who have young children they want to spend more time with or who just want to get off the equity partner treadmill.” Remarkably, no one seems willing to rethink the wisdom of a system that produces that unhappy treadmill in the first place.
The presence of more non-equity partners in big law might simply be a residue of the enormous associate classes hired in earlier years. But for firms using them to create a permanent subclass generating short-term dollars, the strategy makes no long-term sense. Because there’s no metric to capture the downside, big law leaders will ignore it.
But if the trend continues, the non-equity partner bubble will grow and the prevailing big law model will develop another enduring chink in its increasingly fragile armor.