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2012: THE YEAR OF PARTNER DEPARTURE?

This year may be the year of partner departure from some of the big firms.  Not to be mistaken:  partners leaving big firms to join boutique firms or to start their own firms isn’t a new phenomenon.  There are common reasons to do so: a change in a firm’s retirement plan; a huge client is conflicted out and the partner wants to keep the client; or a geographic change.  However, Delia Swan at Swan Legal Search predicts that this year may be when partners leave in droves.  Why?  Biglaw’s departure from the “old-fashioned” practice of law.

“The flailing economy and the business of law firm management are reasons that many partners are going to be leaving this year,” predicts Delia Swan.  “Talent is less important, it seems, than the ability to generate revenue.  Thus, those who still hold dear the honorable, old-fashioned practice of law and feel they’re over-charging clients will want to rectify this and will seek out firms with lesser hourly rates.”

In addition, the pressure is on at many law firms to produce a constant stream of business.  Many firms are pushing partners to generate more than $1M each year, while the salary earned by the partners isn’t increasing proportionately.  “Partners know that they can leave a big firm, keep their clients, charge the clients less and make more money.  It’s a win-win for the partner and client, but it’s a lose-lose for the law firm and the associates at that firm,” Swan said.

“Associates are left in a lurch, unless of course, they’re asked to join the departing partner.  Unfortunately, that is usually not the case in this market, since the new firm will likely have associates in its rank who will take on the new partner’s case load.  So, the associates at the old firm are left without work and without the opportunity to move to a new firm with the partner.  It can be devastating.”

As a result, associates who are left behind have to work even harder to make sure they stay busy and become invaluable to the firm.  In many cases, this means that the associates need to find work within the firm and start figuring out how to generate business on their own – outside of the firm.  Associates are “growing up” quickly in the big firm environment.

“Typically, associates aren’t expected to be generating cases until they’ve worked for years at the firm.  The firms aren’t pushing business development onto associates, but the associates who want to stay in the firm and make partner see the writing on the wall,” Swan said. “They need to make money for the firm, or they may find themselves off the partner track.”

What does this mean for partners and associates?  This year will certainly mean changes for the structure of many firms.  Associates will be working harder than ever and may have expectations placed on them beyond their typical workload.  However, associates who can step up to the plate and deliver decent legal work and a great book of business may step into the role of partner more quickly than ever.

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