Associates don't see partnership as the Holy Grail

Only 50 per cent of respondents to the Canadian Lawyer Associates survey on attitudes toward partnership say their goal is to become a partner in a law firm.

Not every lawyer dreams of moving into the corner office.

At least that’s what the results of our annual Canadian Lawyer Associates survey of attitudes toward partnership suggest. With over 300 respondents from firms of all sizes across the country, opinions were split on whether or not partnership ambitions were in their future. Overall, the split was 50-50 on wanting to become a partner or not.

The male-female split though told a different story. Among male lawyers, 57 per cent of respondents said they wanted to become partners, but among women lawyers, 59 per cent indicated that they were unsure or did not want to join the partnership. Overall, however, 52 per cent of respondents believed they were on the track to partnership, whether they wanted it or not.

It might surprise some people who are just starting out, but those who have been at this for a while realize partnership isn’t always the driving force of a successful legal career. “I think that all law school graduates start their careers thinking that partnership is the Holy Grail,” comments one respondent, who has 10 years of practice behind her. “Once ‘life’ actually begins, and you weigh the pros and cons of that kind of commitment, often it is not the right decision for everyone.”

When asked why partnership might not be the right track, a clear theme emerged. Almost 60 per cent chose a lack of work-life balance as the main factor for their decision. Several people added that they feared not getting along with the current partners and consequently didn’t see partnership as an option for an enjoyable and successful future. While there has been much talk in the profession about creating more work-life balance, it seems that almost half of those polled feel alternative work arrangements such as flex-time, telecommuting, or part-time options would either somewhat or very much affect their chances of becoming partners.

Some respondents were critical of the lack of options for lawyers who planned to start a family but also wanted partnership status, especially among female appear to be compatible within their firm. “The questions of being able to have a child and continue working were more important to me than partnership,” said one associate who was faced with making the choice.

“I think the current partners in our firm have huge misconceptions about the goals of the current associates,” says another lawyer, who was recently called to the bar. “They don’t realize that very few of us (if any) see partnership as an attractive goal given the extreme lack of work-life balance at that level. My feeling is that this generation of associates sees the practice of law as a job, not as a way of life, and we aren’t as guided by money as the partners think.”

While money might not be the key for everyone, it’s certainly a factor for those who do hope to make the transition. Increased income was the second-most popular reason for wanting to become a partner. An additional factor offered by many participants was the opportunity to have more say in the decision making, and more control over the direction, of the firm. Interestingly, the number one reason selected was that it’s simply the next step in their career.

Part of the problem with making partner seems to stem from figuring out how to get there, particularly in firms of under 50 lawyers. “The goals to achieve in order to become a partner have never been clearly articulated to the associates,” said one lawyer. Nearly 60 per cent of participants felt that the criteria for making partnership in their firm were not being made clear.

Over one-third couldn’t even say how many years their firm required as an associate before the move would be considered. Successful organizations know that internal communication is critical to industry success, so law firms may want to take note. Making career objectives clear can lead to better results from the team.

For those who were aware of the criteria, the financial performance and level of billable hours ranked highest on the list. “Compatibility with clients, other lawyers, and staff,” as put by one respondent, was another common theme, along with the “ability to create business opportunities.” Only 17 per cent said the type and amount of non-billable hours play a role in making partner at their firm.

While 54 per cent said they were aware of alternatives to partnership in their firm, most didn’t consider them appealing. The most common option was as a permanent associate with a different salary and billable-hour track. Counsel positions and non-equity partnership were other common choices offered by firms. The majority of associates (57 per cent) said they did not find these alternatives attractive.

Lack of partnership ambition doesn’t appear to correlate to unhappy associates, however. Satisfaction levels are quite high — 83 per cent of respondents claimed to be very or somewhat satisfied with their current firm. Over 80 per cent stated they had not applied for another position in the past year. For those who were looking for other options, in-house counsel and government positions ranked highest on the list. Satisfaction on the job may also result from quality interactions with other members of the firm.

Our survey results also suggest satisfaction over opportunities for interaction with the existing partners. Eighty-one per cent indicated they were very or somewhat satisfied with the social interaction between themselves and current partners, while 84 per cent were also pleased about their involvement with partners for work-related matters. At the same time, 70 per cent said they felt their firm has a diverse mix of partners appropriate to its mix of lawyers, clients, and the community.

But at the end of the day, more than 56 per cent of survey respondents said they either didn’t know how much longer they would stay in private practice or it would be for less than five more years. Almost 52 per cent, however, said that they would likely stay with the firm they’re at right now.

Overall, the Associates survey results seem to signal a shift away from the traditional partner track to a more balanced career path that provides increased family time. There are still plenty of people out there to fill the offices, but as work demands continue to increase, we may witness a decline in those who are willing to take on the partnership challenge.

As a lawyer from a small law firm in Ontario noted, “Apart from an increase in income, I don’t really see the benefits at this point in time to becoming a partner.”

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