Being a law firm partner was once a job for life. That culture is all but dead.

Viewed in The Wall Street Journal

Careers in large law firms aren’t what they once were, even if you are a partner.

Historically, becoming a law firm partner was a ticket both to long-term employment affiliation and wealth. “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,” Wall Street Journal reporter Sara Randazzo reports.

What changed? Simply put, the paradigm of large law firms has changed nearly completely.

Increasingly, firms are run by non-attorney CEOs. Large firms have become even larger, and attorneys have become expendable.

Today, even partners, who sometimes no longer enjoy equity stakes in their firms, jump ship for other law firms and career opportunities.

Randazzo points to Kirkland, founded in Chicago in 1969, as Exhibit A in this shift. “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,” she writes.

This has been generally positive new for young attorney associates, whose hourly rate has increased to as much as $1,000 an hour.

But the real winners in the new paradigm are the few remaining senior partners who, with equity stakes, share in the firm’s profits.

In the case of Kirkland, that firm-wide revenue last year was $3.76 billion, meaning the firm’s few partners stood to earn anywhere from $1.75 million to $15 million.

Other attorneys of these firms, including non-equity partners, still do well, earning as much as $700,000 annually but no longer recipients of the seven-figure compensation and lifetime career affiliation partners have earned historically.  

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