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Departing the partner track

August 24, 2016

Law firms are looking for talent and signing up attorneys who fit clients’ needs in flexible arrangements that eschew the traditional associate-to-partner model. The trend addresses the firms’ needs to contain costs and the desire of many lawyers for more work-life balance.

Trimble Trimble

“This is a totally new change and a phenomenon from a few years ago,” said Lewis Wagner LLP’s former managing partner John Trimble, whose firm is among those offering alternate arrangements. “I increasingly hear of non-partner-track positions being offered, particularly in larger firms, that are characterized as counsel or staff attorney.”

Flexible arrangements may set a reduced expectation of annual billable hours, or permit lawyers to work from home or work on a fee-per-project basis, among other trends.

“I think it’s something that if people have different expectations of what they want out of work, it’s a great option,” said Steven K. Humke, chief managing partner at Ice Miller LLP. “There was a time when you had kind of a one-size-fits-all approach to a legal career. And now we realize you have lots of different sizes. That’s good for the lawyer, good for the firm, and most importantly, good for the clients.”

Salaries for these positions typically are less than those paid to associates on a partner track, but the trade off is lawyers in alternative arrangements have fewer work expectations and obligations. They typically won’t be pressured to develop a book of business nor hit associate targets of upwards of 1,800 billable hours a year. In some cases, they also may bill at a lower hourly rate in response to client pressure to control costs.

Changing needs

Barnes & Thornburg LLP Chief Human Resources Officer Laurie Rompala said the firm looks at alternate employment arrangements as adding to rather than subtracting from the traditional partner track. “It’s essentially a very good model for our clients where they might need a specialized skill set but not in a 100 percent role,” she said.

Rompala said these kinds of hires allow the firm to better meet clients’ needs across its 13 offices. And as firms continue to add more lateral hires with specialized skills, flexible arrangements make sense. She used the example of an attorney hired from a government agency whose transition into the firm would differ from one who rose through Barnes’ summer and first-year associate ranks.

“It’s an interesting trend we’re seeing across the firm,” Rompala said. “It’s generally a very positive thing.”

bob hicks Hicks

Robert Hicks, incoming managing partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, said many people assume law firms are forcing alternate hiring plans when the reverse is true. “It’s mostly to accommodate the desires of young lawyers today,” he said. “We have very few lawyers who are not on a partnership track, but we’re looking very hard at providing an alternate track for people who request it. … When we find talent we want to hire, we tend to be flexible and make it an arrangement that will work for them.”

Faegre Baker Daniels LLP Chief Operating Partner Thomas Froehle said about 10 to 15 percent of the firm’s associates, mostly lateral hires, are on a counsel track since the firm announced a new career model in 2012.

“We are certainly seeing a need from clients for cost-effective solutions,” Froehle said. The new model was conceived, he said, “with the idea of trying to provide flexibility for lawyers for the paths they want to take.” And he stressed that lawyers hired on a non-partner track can, and have, changed their career ambitions, switched tracks and made partner at the firm.

‘Very grateful’

Attorney Katie Bayt moved with her lawyer husband, David, and two young children from Indianapolis to Dallas in 2012, but she still had work in the Circle City. Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart P.C.’s Indianapolis office arranged a flexible of counsel agreement through which she could work her specialty, drafting position statements and related work for employers in discrimination cases. The family returned to Indianapolis this year, and Katie said her work arrangement has been “fantastic” as her daughter Sofia, 8, and son Cass, 5, have grown.

“I really do feel that it’s just such a great idea for firms to embrace this,” she said. “It’s a great way to keep people — frankly, women — in firm life. So often you hear of attorneys who either decide to go in house or quit the practice of law entirely because the pressures of working for a firm are great. I feel very grateful to have this position.”

Bayt said she has a steady flow of work without an expectation of having to develop her own clients as an Ogletree shareholder would. Since coming back to Indianapolis, she’s taken on more work but still is only in the office once or twice a week. She said her flexible arrangement lets her keep a foot in the door at the firm, and she’ll have the opportunity to take on more work as her kids grow, and the partner track is open to her if she later decides to pursue it.

Ebert Ebert

Former Ogletree managing shareholder Kim Ebert said firms and lawyers each gain in these arrangements. Lawyers maintain their professional skills and firms are able to create cost-effective ways of meeting clients’ needs. “It can very much be a win-win situation for the law firm and the lawyer,” he said.

Potential downsides

Some firm managers worry that fewer people in the partner pipeline raises concerns about law firm succession plans.

“Law firms now are providing the opportunity for lawyers to craft a legal position that allows them to practice law, make a comfortable living, and enjoy what they’re doing, without having an opportunity to move into the ownership structure of the firm,” Trimble said. There may be opportunities for those lawyers to petition the firm to get on a partner track, and the firm could lose talent if it doesn’t make those opportunities available.

Trimble said there is concern among some firm managers that more women and minority lawyers may be hired in these positions that aren’t on a partner track. And overall, these new hiring trends could negatively affect traditional firm cultures and make it less likely that the number of women and minorities in equity partner positions will grow.

“Firms are providing jobs and opportunity to people on the one hand, but they may be doing it because it is easier and less expensive than providing mentors and training and all of the things that are required to grow someone from an associate to a partner,” he said.•

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