Wall Street Journal, Being a Law Firm Partner Was Once a Job for Life. That Culture Is All but Dead.:
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. Full-time chief executives, some without law degrees, have replaced the senior partner running human resources and accounting. Law firm names have trended toward the shorter and snappier, more befitting a tote bag than a law library.
Many firms have expanded rapidly to mirror the growth of their corporate clients, with hundreds of partners spread around the world. The largest, Dentons, recently hit 10,000 lawyers in 78 countries, around a third of them partners. ...
In the new paradigm, lawyers are expendable, and partners may jump to a competitor for the right amount of money, taking as many clients as possible with them on the way out.
Junior lawyers always worked long hours for years before being promoted, but that meant a kind of lifetime tenure. Today, making partner can take more than a decade and still requires scraping for new business. Becoming a partner, the industry saying goes, is like winning a pie-eating contest only to find the prize is more pie.
“If you get partners in their private moments to talk about ambitions for their children, I would be very surprised if many would articulate partnership in a large law firm,” said Elliott Portnoy, Dentons’s global chief executive. ...
No firm embodies the changes more than Kirkland, which was founded in Chicago in 1909. ... 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 system is meant to reward ambitious young lawyers faster, before they weary of the entry-level title of associate. Left unsaid: The promotion often justifies a bump in their hourly rate to around $1,000, which enriches senior partners who share in 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. Traditionally, the best-paid partner made no more than three or four times the most junior at the nation’s top law firms.
Leaders at rival firms say Kirkland’s pay has forced them to pay their own top performers more, at risk of blowing apart their culture.