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Unlocking the Secrets of Law Firm Partnership Structures: A Must-Read Guide for Success-Driven Lawyers

11 min
read

Updated

Apr 7, 2023

Understanding law firm partnership structures is crucial for lawyers seeking to:

  • advance their careers and make informed decisions about their law firm goals and success
  • easily navigate the complexities of law firm ownership structures, from financial implications and liability concerns to governance and cooperation
  • realize the inner workings of law firm partnership structures
  • make better decisions about their legal practice and collaborate more effectively with colleagues

In this article, we will delve deep into the various law firm partnership structures, exploring their nuances, and offering valuable insights to help you determine which law firm partnership model aligns best with your values, goals, and aspirations.

Whether you are an aspiring partner, a seasoned attorney considering a lateral move, or a law firm manager seeking to enhance your firm's strategic direction, this guide will serve as your go-to resource for recognizing the implications partnership models hold for your career and practice.

What Is a Law Firm Partner?

A law firm partner is an attorney who holds an ownership interest in a law firm under a specific law firm partnership model, sharing in the firm's profits, losses, and decision-making processes. Partners generally hold a higher level of responsibility within the firm, actively participating in the management of the firm's business, formulating its strategies, and supervising its daily operations.

What Are the Types of Law Firm Partnership Structures?

Law firm partnership structures

There are several types of law firm partnership structures, which can be broadly categorized into single-tier and two-tier partnership models. To better understand these structures, let's take a look at some law firm partnership examples within these categories:

Single-Tier Partnership Law Firms

In the traditional small law firm partnership structure, lawyers are typically classified as either associates or full equity partners. A full equity partner holds a share of the firm and possesses complete voting rights, while also receiving a portion of the firm's profits. This single-tier model is commonly utilized by smaller firms, providing simplicity in terms of structure and hierarchy.

  • Advancement: Associates may work for the firm for decades before being invited to become a partner
  • Ownership: Partners own a share of the firm and have full voting rights
  • Compensation: Full equity partner receives a share of the firm's profits
  • Liability: Full equity partners may be liable for losses, malpractice, or other issues caused by other partners
  • Complexity: Simpler structure, often used by smaller firms
  • Incentive for Associates: Most law firm partnerships of this nature lack advancement incentives for associates

Two-Tier Partnership Law Firms

This model features multiple partnership levels, providing more flexibility in hiring and retaining experienced law firm practitioners. The two-tier partnership model includes:

a. Full Equity Partners: These legal partners own a share of the law firm, have full voting rights in firm management decisions, and receive a share of the firm's profits.

b. Non-Equity Partners: These partners have more seniority than associates but do not own a share of the law firm. Many if not most non-equity partners receive a salary and year-end or discretionary bonuses based on the firm's profitability. There are two subcategories within a non-equity partnership:

i. Fixed Share Equity (FSE) Partners: This term is primarily used in the UK. These partners can vote on a limited set of law firm management issues and receive a year-end bonus based on the firm's profitability.

ii. Salaried Partners (also called Income Partners): An income partner receives a salary and a discretionary bonus instead of profit sharing. The promotion to a salaried partnership may not represent a significant step forward in a legal career path, but it can help the law firm retain experienced associates without taking on untested partners.

  • Advancement: Quicker prospects for advancement; associates might get promoted to non-equity partner after a few years
  • Ownership: Full equity partners own a share of the law firm, while non-equity partners do not
  • Compensation: Non-equity partners (FSE or salaried partners) receive a salary and may receive year-end bonuses or discretionary bonuses based on the law firm's profitability
  • Liability: Full equity partners may be liable for losses, while non-equity partners (FSE or salaried partners) are not liable for the law firm's losses
  • Complexity: More complicated structure with multiple partnership levels, providing flexibility in hiring and retaining experienced practitioners
  • Incentive for Associates: Associates have incentive to stay with the law firm and work hard to meet billing quotas, as they have the potential to be promoted to non-equity partner positions

How Law Firm Partnership Structures Work

Lawyers's responsibilities at a law firm

Law firms have an internal structure just like any other business. Each person in the firm fills a role in providing legal services to clients. The roles include lawyers who are admitted to practice law and the legal staff who support law practitioners.

Lawyers practice law at many firms, including:

  • Advising and counseling clients
  • Representing clients before adjudicative bodies
  • Advocating for clients against opposing parties
  • Negotiating on behalf of clients

Attorneys also have roles within law firm partnerships. Each one's role depends on their relationship with the law firm.

Partner/Executive

Partners own a share of the equity partnership of the law firm. They steer the direction of the law firm through an established management structure.

Some firms have a management committee law firm structure. This committee makes decisions by taking a vote among the partners.

Other firms have a managing partner law firm structure. This partner acts as the executive, making day-to-day decisions. The law firm will still take partnership votes on major issues like merging with another firm or firing a partner. The firm's articles of organization or partnership agreement identify issues that require a vote.

Associate

Associates are employees of the law firm. They have no management responsibilities, no vote on firm matters, and no ownership stake in the firm. They do not have the right to profit sharing and have nothing at risk if the firm has financial struggles.

Many law firms are divided into sections. Each section covers a particular practice area. Associates are usually assigned to a particular section based on the firm’s needs and the associate’s interests. For example, associates in the intellectual property section will spend most of their time on IP cases.

Each section is led by one or more partners who oversee the cases in their sections. The associates usually report to senior partners, who set the case strategy.

Contract Lawyer

Contract lawyers are independent contractors for the firm. They usually join a firm temporarily to fill a particular need. A firm with a large antitrust case might hire a well-known antitrust law professor on a contract basis for the case.

When the contract ends, the contract lawyer can move on to another job or return to their normal work. Contract lawyers usually get paid a salary and rarely receive an ownership stake in the firm.

“Of Counsel” Lawyer

“Of counsel” covers many roles. Sometimes senior lawyers transitioning out of firms will take the title “of counsel.” This allows the lawyer’s name to remain associated with the firm, but the lawyer no longer engages in full-time practice.

Firms also use “of counsel” to refer to a lawyer who is affiliated with the firm but has other interests that prevent them from practicing. For example, lawyers elected or appointed to government offices might take the title “of counsel” during their term. When their term ends, they return to the firm as a partner.

Legal Staff

A firm’s legal staff provides a range of support services to attorneys, including:

  • Answering phones and emails
  • Preparing and formatting documents for filing
  • Managing the lawyers work hours
  • Docketing and reminding the lawyers of deadlines

Staff members are either employees or independent contractors. Firms hire staff to make attorneys more efficient at providing legal services. The lawyers and their staff members work together to represent clients in the most effective way possible.

Law Clerks

Law clerks are usually law students who work for a firm on a temporary basis during summer breaks or after classes. Law firms often hire law clerks as an audition for a position after law school. Similarly, law clerks work for firms to determine whether the firm’s culture matches what they want in their future law practice.

Law clerks are employees of the law firm. They may work under the supervision of a partner who oversees the firm’s law clerk program. They perform legal research and draft documents just as they would as a lawyer. If a student’s clerkship goes smoothly, the firm may extend an offer of employment.

Paralegals

Some states limit the term “paralegal” to someone who has earned a paralegal certificate. Other states allow anyone working under the direction of a lawyer to use the term.

Paralegals assist lawyers in providing legal services. Their role is different from that of legal secretaries, who perform primarily administrative tasks. Paralegals draft documents, prepare exhibits, and perform legal research.

Paralegals often have expertise that attorneys lack. A litigation paralegal might, for example, know all of the rules that apply to appeal briefs, including filing deadlines and required supporting documents.

Legal Secretaries

Depending on the firm, a legal secretary might also be called a legal assistant or legal administrator. Legal secretaries provide administrative support to attorneys.

In contrast to paralegals, legal secretaries generally do not provide legal services. Instead, they perform tasks like scheduling appointments, maintaining the lawyer's calendar, preparing client correspondence, and filing documents. 

In small firms, legal secretaries may also order office supplies, make sure vendors and suppliers get paid, and send bills to clients.

Other Staff Members

Law firms have other staff members to help run day-to-day operations. Some examples include:

  • Runners to file documents and deliver papers
  • Investigators to perform background research
  • Network administrators to keep the firm’s computer system running
  • Billing and accounting administrators to manage accounts payable and receivable

These employees usually work under the direction of an office manager and a managing partner.

How to Join a Law Firm Partnership Structure

Main steps to join a law firm partnership structure

To join an existing law ownership, you will need an invitation. Whether the firm is structured as a partnership, LLC, or PC, the existing partners need to give a partnership invitation or sell you an ownership share in the firm.

There's no secret formula that will make you stand out as potential partner material. But many law firm partners follow a similar path.

Step 1: Excel in Your Work and Specialize in a Niche

To stand out as a potential partner, consistently deliver high-quality work and build a solid reputation. By specializing in a specific niche, you can reduce competition for clients and open up new practice areas for the firm.

Step 2: Network and Build Relationships with Law Firms

Establish connections with firms you're interested in joining. Partners are more likely to extend partnership offers to lawyers they know, like, trust, and respect. Networking helps create and strengthen these relationships.

Step 3: Find a Mentor with Partnership Experience

Seek guidance from an experienced lawyer who has navigated the partnership track. A mentor can provide invaluable advice on advancing your career, identifying the ideal partnership structure, and avoiding potential pitfalls.

Step 4: Leverage Your Mentor's Connections

By building a strong relationship with a mentor within your desired firm, you can gain an advocate who can put in a good word for you and champion your partnership candidacy.

Step 5: Demonstrate Your Business Development Skills

As a partner, you'll be expected to contribute to the firm's business and legal talent development efforts. Show your ability to bring in new clients and cases, which will further demonstrate your value as a potential partner.

Questions to Ask Before Starting a Law Partnership

Being offered a law firm partnership is a big step forward in a lawyer's career. But many lawyers do not consider how this might affect their law practice and family life.

Some questions to ask before joining a partnership include:

Q1: How is compensation determined for non-equity legal partners?

Non-equity partners typically receive a salary and a bonus. The bonus may be discretionary or based on the law firm's profits.

Q2: How is compensation structured for equity legal partners?

Equity partners usually receive a stream of income and a distribution at the end of the year. The stream of income, or "draw," is often subtracted from the expected distribution, which can affect the resources available to you and your family.

Q3: Do equity partners have to repay draws if the law firm isn't profitable?

This depends on the law firm's policies. It's essential to ask this question before joining a law firm partnership to understand the financial implications of your involvement.

Q4: How can I learn about the law firm's partnership structure and advancement opportunities?

Before joining a partnership, inquire about the law firm's structure and the process for advancing through the ranks. This information will help you gauge your potential for growth within the firm.

Q5: To what extent do partners have control over their legal practice?

Partners usually have significant control over their practice. However, it's essential to understand if other lawyers can veto your cases and clients and determine your freedom to spend the law firm's resources on business development and marketing.

Q6: What management and administrative responsibilities come with a law firm partnership?

Partners often have management and administrative duties, which can impact your work and home schedule. Make sure to ask about the time commitments associated with these responsibilities before accepting a law firm partnership offer.

FAQ

  • What is the difference between a partner and a member of a law firm?

    A partner is an owner of the law firm, while a member is an employee of the law firm. Partners have partial ownership in the company and are typically at the top of the pyramid in terms of seniority. Associates are employees who work for the firm and can become partners if they meet certain criteria.

  • Is partner the highest position in a law firm?

    No, partner is not necessarily the highest position in a law firm. Other positions such as Of Counsel or Non-Equity Partner may be higher than partner depending on the structure of the law firm.

  • Law Firm Partner vs Associate: What's the Difference?

    The primary difference between a partner and an associate in a law firm is experience level and seniority. A partner has partial ownership in the company and usually has more experience than an associate, who is an employee of the firm. Associates can become partners if they meet certain criteria such as having expertise in a certain area or making significant contributions to the success of the firm.

  • What are the benefits of being a partner at a law firm

    Being a partner at a law firm comes with many benefits, including increased responsibility, autonomy, prestige, financial rewards, and potential for growth within the organization. Partners also typically have access to more resources than associates do, which can help them succeed professionally and personally.

Mastering the Law Firm Partnerships' Puzzle: Empowering Your Legal Career With Confidence and Clarity

Most private practitioners aspire to become partners within their law firm's partnership structure. Partners are better compensated and have more freedom over their practices. They also get intangible benefits like respect within the legal profession. If you share this goal, make sure you understand your law firm's partnership model track.

But making partner is not for everyone. It requires long hours that can take you away from family and hobbies outside the office. Once you make a law firm partner, you will have administrative and managerial responsibilities that could further impinge on your schedule. 

For some lawyers, an alternative career path, like a solo practice, better fits their personal and professional goals.

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