Three-quarters of all attorneys work in law firms—business entities in which one or more of them engage in the practice of law. Law firm titles, the roles of law firm attorneys, and the number of roles utilized can vary based on the size and complexity of the firm.
The managing partner sits at the top of the law firm hierarchy. A senior-level or founding lawyer of the firm, she manages day-to-day operations. She often heads an executive committee comprised of other senior partners, and she helps to establish and guide the firm's strategic vision.
The managing partner usually assumes management responsibilities in addition to maintaining a full-time law practice.
Law Firm Partners
Law firm partners, also called shareholders, are attorneys who are joint owners and operators of the firm. The types and structures of law firm partnerships can vary. Sole proprietorships—firms with just one attorney—general partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs), professional associations, and limited liability partnerships (LLPs) are the most common.
Most law firms embrace a two-tiered partnership structure: equity and non-equity. Equity partners have an ownership stake in the firm and they share in its profits. Non-equity partners are generally paid a fixed annual salary. They might be vested with certain limited voting rights in law firm matters.
Non-equity partners are often, although not always, promoted to full equity status in one to three years. They're frequently required to make a capital contribution to the firm become equity partners, effectively "buying in" to the role.
Associates are typically younger attorneys who have the potential to become partners. Large firms divide associates into junior and senior associates, depending on merit and experience level.
The typical lawyer works as an associate for six to nine years before ascending to partnership ranks or "making partner." When—and if—an associate makes partner generally depends on a combination of factors, including the associate's legal acumen, his client base, and how well he fits into the firm's culture.
'Of Counsel' Attorneys
Attorneys who are "of counsel" aren't technically employees of the firm. They usually work on an independent contractor basis.
Lawyers who serve in this role are usually very experienced, senior lawyers who have their own books of business. They have strong reputations in the legal community. Some of-counsel attorneys are semi-retired lawyers who were formerly partners of the firm. Others are hired to augment the firm's client base or knowledge base.
Most of-counsel lawyers work on a part-time basis, manage their own cases, and supervise associates and staff.
Summer associates, also referred to as summer clerks or law clerks, are law students who intern with a firm during the summer months. An internship can be unpaid in smaller firms, although large firms often have well-established summer associate programs that serve as a tool to recruit young, talented lawyers. These positions are often highly competitive and well-paying.
A successful summer associate might receive a permanent offer of employment to work for the firm upon graduation.
Work Your Way Up
The natural and typical progression of a career in law, one spanning decades, typically works out like this in larger firms. It might begin during law school and culminate in a semi-retired of-counsel role. The lines can blur considerably in small firms.
- Summer Associate
- Junior Associate
- Senior Associate
- Managing Partner
- Of Counsel Attorney