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January 13, 2012 6:53 PM

For This Year's New Partners, Perseverance Pays

Posted by Sara Randazzo

In November, six years after she arrived at White & Case as a midlevel associate, Jennifer Paradise received a call from Philip Schaeffer, the firm's general counsel and the partner with whom she works most closely. Schaeffer asked Paradise to step into his office. Once there, he and two other lawyers she works with caused her a moment of panic by closing the door before breaking the news: Paradise had been elected to the firm's partnership. Her reaction? "Frankly," she says, "my jaw dropped. Which is a lovely sensation."

When she joined Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison 11 years ago as a first-year associate fresh out of Columbia Law School, Paradise, like most attorneys she knew, had her professional sights set on one thing: becoming a law firm partner. Four years later, when an unexpected career turn took her to a job in White & Case's general counsel's office—a department that advises the firm's lawyers on ethics and conflicts issues and other legal matters—Paradise wasn't sure she would ever achieve her goal.

As it turned out, her career trajectory—though different than the one she first imagined—still led to a law firm partnership. In that, Paradise says her story is not uncommon: "It seems to me what I've seen more and more, and is certainly true of many of my law school classmates, is that very few of us took what would be a traditional path."

Paradise is one of 973 associates and counsel to make partner at 97 Am Law 100 and Second Hundred firms that announced their new partner classes as of January 13. 

Women, who accounted for exactly a third of that group, were well represented in some firm's new classes, and not so well-represented in others. Twenty of the 97 firms elected class sizes made up of at least 50 percent women, including Jones Day (25 of 45 new partners), Locke Lord (seven of 14), Perkins Coie (seven of 12), Stinson Morrison Hecker (four of five), and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (two of three). On the flip side, thirteen firms elected no women, including Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner (six new partners), Haynes and Boone (nine), and Winstead (five). (For a firm-by-firm gender breakdown of the new partner class, see The American Lawyer's "Women Partner Watch" page.)

Whether men or women, most of these new partners appear to have taken the traditional route of rising through the ranks of the firm they joined after law school. At the same time, anecdotal evidence suggests that, like Paradise, many others took a longer way around, whether by making a detour in-house, strengthening their courtroom chops with a stint as a prosecutor, or jumping from one firm to another.

"There are more ways to make partner at law firms today than there used to be," says Marshall Camp, who this month became a litigation and white-collar partner in Irell & Manella's Los Angeles office. Camp joined the firm in 2003 after a federal district court clerkship, left two years later for the U.S. attorney's office in the Southern District of New York, and returned in 2009 as special counsel—a title he held until becoming Irell's only new partner this year.

"I think there was a time when coming out of the U.S. attorney's office and becoming a partner was rather challenging," says Camp, a 2002 graduate of New York University School of Law. "Today, large firms tend to want, I believe, greater diversity in their ranks."

The diverse paths this year's new partners followed didn't always lead them to the partnership ranks quickly. An examination of the law school graduation years of about 500 of the freshly minted U.S.–based partners at 60 of the 97 firms found that, on average, it took ten and a half years for members of this year's class to make partner. The graduation year most heavily represented (127 new partners) was 2003, meaning it took lawyers who left law school that year eight and a half years to make partner.  Nearly 60 percent of the roughly 500 took longer than that, and 15 percent made partner in seven and a half years or less. (The quickest promotions went to a pair of new McDermott Will & Emery partners: 2006 Harvard Law School graduate Joshua Spielman in Miami and 2006 Yale Law School grad Timothy Shuman in Washington, D.C.)

Many of this year's new partners logged time as counsel, of counsel, or special counsel, and some of those on our list graduated from law school as early as 1974. (It's worth noting that in most, though not all, cases, new partners enter the ranks as income partners and must prove their worth for several years before being elected to a firm's equity partnership.)

Just two years ago, a survey by the National Association for Law Placement found 85 percent of law offices reporting that it took them seven or eight years or longer to make partner, with the remaining 15 percent generally reporting shorter tracks.

NALP notes, and our analysis appears to confirm, that those timelines are more of a best-case scenario than a hard-and-fast standard.

At Mayer Brown, for instance, partner promotion committee cochair Robert Davis says this year the firm considered candidates "from the class of 2004 and more senior—with stress on the 'more senior.'" Mayer Brown's new partner class counts 39 attorneys worldwide; of the 23 in the United States, roughly half graduated from law school earlier than 2004.

Shook, Hardy & Bacon chair John Murphy stresses that, while associates at his firm are eligible for promotion after seven and a half years, those who don't make it then are not out of the running. This year, Shook named a dozen new partners, seven of whom are homegrown and five of whom lateraled in from other firms. (Of Shook's ten new U.S.–based partners, four graduated in 2004; the rest are more senior.)

"If somebody has invested six years of their career with us, and it doesn't look like they're anywhere close to partner, we owe it to them to let them know," Murphy says. "Conversely, if somebody is doing everything we want them to do, we get the message to them that they're proceeding along nicely. We don't want them thinking their career is in trouble."

Associates at firms across the country have heard similar messages, something likely to have reinforced their commitment to putting in the time—in years and billable hours—necessary to make partner. And as the economy begins to rebound, firms appear more eager to reward that commitment than they have been in recent years.

At 70 of the firms to make new partner announcements by January 13, the overall number of partners named was 8 percent higher this year than last, and only a minority of firms named fewer partners than they did in 2011.

Among those with bigger partner classes this year, Epstein Becker Green showed the most growth. The firm elevated eight lawyers this year compared to just one last year. Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Chadbourne & Parke, both of which named just one new partner in 2011, elected, respectively, four and three this time around.

As might be expected, firms with the most lawyers tended to name the most new partners: In addition to 2,500-lawyer Jones Day's 45 (up from 36 last year), 1,650-lawyer Mayer Brown promoted 43 (up from 32); 2,400-lawyer Hogan Lovells elected 35 (down from 36); and 1,500-lawyer Sidley Austin promoted 33 (up from 28).

As to the larger class sizes, Mayer Brown's Davis says the 34 percent increase at his firm stems in part from a strong pool of candidates, but also from increased optimism that work is beginning to pick up. "Clearly there's an economic factor at work," he says. "We were not immune to the transactional work slowdown that affected many firms, and we took that into account in making partner recommendations. As work has expanded and will continue to expand, we think we'll need more partners."

Other firms, it seems, are also expecting the volume of corporate and transactional work to increase. Overall, more than half the new partners at the surveyed firms were in nonlitigation practices.

In addition to targeting particularly busy practice areas, firm leaders say that when considering potential partners, they continue to look for what they always have: strong lawyers who are both dedicated to the firm and able to bring in business.

Colin Kemp's take on what helped him win election to the firm's partnership? "It was more like a matter of time for me," says Kemp, who joined Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in 2001 and is one of the firm's five new partners. "It was a lot of hard work, a lot of good work."

Now that he has earned partner status, Kemp, echoing the sentiments of other new partners, says he anticipates the focus of his job will change slightly as he begins to seek new clients and take more of a leadership role on the cases he handles.

"The last couple months, a lot of folks have asked me, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Now do you get to go on a trip to Hawaii and relax?" Kemp says. "The answer is unequivocally no. I haven't gotten a ticket to go mess around by any means. Far from it."

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