The Firms

December 22, 2009 3:48 PM

And Then There Were None

Posted by Vivia Chen

'Tis the season to be jolly--unless you’re coming up for partner this year. Making partner at a big New York firm is a crap shoot, but in this recession the odds have gone from bad to dismal. At many prominent firms, the number of new partners has dropped precipitously: four at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (eight in 2008); two at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (six in 2008); two at Debevoise & Plimpton (six in 2008); and three at Weil, Gotshal & Manges (seven last year).

And now the year's grand finale: Cravath, Swaine & Moore has just confirmed that it will be making no new partners. That’s right: Zero.

It’s always been notoriously hard to break into the partnership at Cravath, but we can’t remember the last time the firm completely nailed shut the doors to its innermost sanctum (nor could Cravath, or at least the firm declined to say). The firm made three partners in both 2007 and 2008. Could it be that the economic meltdown has hit Cravath harder than other firms? (We reported earlier this year that Cravath suffered a 24 percent drop in its profits per partner for 2008.)

Allen Parker, Cravath's deputy presiding partner, says the economy is not to blame for the absence of new partners this year. "For our firm, whether to make someone a partner is a thirty-year decision," he says, noting that Cravath's remains a single-tier partnership. "We never let the decision be influenced by short-term economic considerations."

In fact, says one senior Cravath partner, the firm is on an upswing, with business picking up 10 percent this year. Finance, M&A, and litigation all report an uptick, this partner says.

The reason Cravath didn’t elevate anyone this year, says this partner, is that the pickings were slim: "We want to make partners even in bad economic times. But this year, no one met our standards." The same source says that very few--less than a handful--of the 80 associates that started in the law school class of 2002 (the class up for partnership this year) remain at the firm at all; some promising associates went into investment banking when the going was hot. In sum, no associate was put up or had the expectation of being anointed partner.

Even assuming that there are no broken hearts from the class of 2002, we wondered what kind of message this no-partner year sends to the young associates there. We caught up with one who says he had no inkling about any partnership decision at all. "I really don't think about that stuff here," he says. "It seems like such a long shot."

In other words, no expectations, no disappointments.That's the old Cravath magic.

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