Having moved from a national firm with over 300 lawyers to a small firm of seven lawyers, I see while there are some similarities there are definitely some significant differences with respect to partnership issues.
One thing that seems to be inevitable in any firm is the “partneritis” syndrome. You know what I’m talking about. It’s where these freshly minted partners, in their own mind, have been “made.” These new partners, who were once your friends, confidants, fellow commiserators, and who experienced the same struggles that you still face, are now the ones who give you cause to complain. The severity of partneritis, however, varies from partner to partner.
There is a great sense of pride for the partner in having attained this new status. With this new position, they also feel a great sense of power. Some get bigger offices or no longer have to share a secretary. Although partnership may initially come with a pay cut, it’s not uncommon to see these new partners buying bigger houses, more expensive cars, and other costly items that say to the world, “I am partner; hear me roar.”
The billings of the associates suddenly become very important to these new partners, as it now directly affects their compensation. (How else will the partner afford that new BMW with all the bells and whistles?)
Consequently, complaints from these new partners will no doubt include the fact that the associates don’t bill enough.
Timing and requirements
In the larger firms, there is a certain time in an associate’s career when it is expected that you will be considered for partnership. The assumption is that something must be wrong with you if you are not a partner by the time you reach your eighth or ninth year of practice. The familiar up-or-out policy contributes to this stereotype.
The necessary hoops that associates need to jump through to become partner are fairly clear in the larger firms. The decision to invite an associate into the partnership will be based on a variety of factors, including: area of expertise, billings, non-billable work, and, of course, profitability. It does not matter whether they are minders, grinders, or finders, the bottom line is always a consideration.
However, in the small firm, that pressure to have “partner” beside your name once you reach a certain stage in your career is not the same. The permanent associate is not a myth. There are actually many prominent lawyers who have chosen not to become partners in the smaller firms.
The up-or-out policy is usually not part of small-firm culture. In fact, there may not be any set guidelines for what is expected of you to become partner. Whether you fit in and work well with a group of lawyers is what is most important. In other words, you will be “out” before you’re “up” if you have a poor working relationship, regardless of your year of call.
A life-altering experience?
In larger firms, associates are often not aware of how the firm is run — financially or otherwise. What goes on at the partnership level is a mystery. Major decisions are made, probably by committees within the firm, and the associates have little or no input. Associates are made aware of decisions after the fact. As a result, associates form an us-versus-them mentality when it comes to defining the relationship between associates and partners. When an associate crosses that line and becomes a partner, they have stepped into a world that is very unfamiliar.
On the other hand, becoming a partner in a small firm is not as much of a life-altering experience. As an associate, you are more likely to be given the opportunity to participate in major decisions that affect the firm. You are involved. The us-versus-them mentality in a small firm is less common. Feeling that you are working as part of a team is more common. You are likely to have a greater awareness of the financial situation of the firm, including the billings, receivables, and work in progress. You actually see the accounts before they go out and may have to follow up with the client directly if bills remain unpaid. Your compensation may even be contingent upon how much you have billed and collected. You are more likely to be given incentives and rewarded for hard work.
As a partner in a small firm, you are part of all the major and minor decisions. There are likely no committees — the partners are the committee. You make decisions from how much the associates should be paid to how your firm logo should look. It is a business which you own and with it comes benefits and responsibilities.
So why would an associate even want to become partner in a small firm? The answer is different for everyone. Some may view it as the natural course of things — at a certain point you should be partner and with that title you are an owner of a law business and may gain a certain credibility. On the other hand, who needs the headaches and liabilities? You may just want to practise law. No matter what one decides, the fact that you are free to choose is a great benefit of working at the small firm. You have the opportunity to be what you want to be.
Alexandra V. Mayeski is an associate at Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP in Hamilton, Ont. She can be reached at