Partner Track vs. Staff Attorney – What’s the Difference?
Every attorney has a different path after law school. Some law school graduates have no plan to practice law. Others don’t quite know what they want to do after law school. And still, other law school graduates know precisely what they do (or do not!) want to do after law school. This leads to a question if you choose to work in a law firm: do you want to stick with the partner track? Or is a staff attorney more your style? Bear in mind that this decision is deeply personal and depends upon what you want in your legal career, your family circumstances, and your long-term personal and career goals. Here, we discuss some of the general differences between choosing the partner track or becoming a staff attorney.
Partner Track vs. Staff Attorney – What’s the Difference?
1. What is the partner track?
Let’s start with the basics. What does it mean to be a partner at a law firm? A partner often buys into the law firm – literally. The partner purchases corporate shares, units in the limited liability company, or partnership interests in the limited liability partnership. In exchange, the partner generates revenue for the firm and receives a share of the firm’s profits. Some firms refer to partners as “members” or “shareholders” depending on the firm’s structure.
It is worth noting that there are different kinds of partners. For example, most law firms have a two-tier partner track. Under this system, as associate attorney get more experience, they are elevated to a non-equity partner. Non-equity partners are sometimes called “partners in name only” internally because they do not own a share of the firm. When a non-equity partner can become an equity partner varies widely among law firms.
Some law firms require equity partners to buy into the firm (often known as a contribution). Some firms require a non-equity partner to develop their book of business to a certain dollar amount before becoming an equity partner. And some firms require both (and neither)! In some firms, there is no equity partner track. In those firms, partners remain in a “partner in name only” relationship throughout their entire legal careers!
The partner track typically requires working as an associate attorney for a number of years before becoming partner. Being an associate attorney at a firm does not guarantee that an attorney will make partner. Firms evaluate many factors when deciding whether to elevate or not to elevate an associate to partner. Unsurprisingly, these factors will differ significantly between firms, but some collectively important factors include:
- generally satisfying (and exceeding) billable hours requirements;
- being a good firm citizen, which means you attend firm functions and volunteer on firm committees;
- having a good working relationship with partners in your practice group; and
- potentially already having or building your own book of business.
Many firms don’t begin to consider associates for partnership positions until the associate works for the law firm for a certain amount of time. Sometimes referred to as a “class year,” this is often based on experience and seniority, the year the attorney graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and considers that attorney’s experience. This, too, will undoubtedly vary from one firm to another.
For example, a law firm might consider a 2016 law school graduate who passed the bar exam in 2016 a seventh-year associate in 2023. There are circumstances where an associate attorney’s year is cut by a year or two due to lateral moves to other law firms or based on the specific requirements of certain firms in terms of competency with a practice area. However, if that person went in-house for a few years and then returned to private practice, they might be considered a fifth-year associate attorney.
2. What does a partner do?
Regardless of the level of partner, a partner is a steward of the law firm, and additional expectations come with that title. Because partners often own some stake in the firm’s business, firms expect much more of a partner than just the conventional lawyering requirements. First, partners must bring in new business. Partners must do a significant amount of non-billable work, including administrative work, such as reviewing and sending out client bills, ensuring that clients pay the firm’s bills, engaging in client development efforts for the firm, and so on.
Being a partner is often glamorized on television and in movies, but it is not always glamorous. It is essentially the role of a business owner with all the requirements of an employee. So, yes, partners have billable hours requirements as well!
3. How long does it take to become a partner?
Firms also differ on how many years it takes as an associate attorney to get to partner – some require five years, some require 10, and some require something in between. Larger law firms often require associates to work 8 to 10 years as an associate before they can become a partner. Mid-size and smaller firms may offer more flexibility.
4. What is a staff attorney, and what is the time commitment?
Staff attorneys play a vital role in law firms working alongside associates and partners, but they are not on the partner track. This means that staff attorneys can work in law firms for their entire legal careers and will never be considered for partnership. Generally, staff attorneys have more years of experience than junior associate attorneys and carry a wealth of knowledge in bigger law firms. As such, because there is no timetable toward partner, there is no specific time commitment for staff attorneys.
5. What differs between an associate attorney on the partner track and a staff attorney?
Many things differ between associate attorneys and staff attorneys, and the best option is highly personal. First and foremost, billable hour requirements can vary significantly between the associate attorneys on the partner track and staff attorneys. In some firms, staff attorneys do not have billable hour requirements at all! Associate attorney billable hours vary significantly based on the law firm, the location of the law firm, and the practice area in which the associate works. Amongst the biggest law firms, 2000 hours per year is a common billable hour requirement. However, some firms have a lower yearly requirement while others a higher yearly requirement.
Salary and Expectations
Salary and availability expectations differ between staff and associate attorneys on the partner track. Associate attorney salaries are larger, particularly among the biggest law firms. However, with the salary difference, there is also usually a difference in expectations and availability. While very few legal jobs, except for an in-house attorney or government attorney, are considered “9 to 5,” staff attorneys usually do not operate under an expectation of being always available to reply to emails or take on work. In most law firms, specifically in bigger law firms, this is the expectation for associate attorneys and partners, irrespective of whether the assignment comes during the evening or weekend.
Firm Resource Allocation
Another difference between an associate attorney on the partner track and a staff attorney is in attorney development and mentorship opportunities. For example, associate attorneys on the partner track are often encouraged to attend conferences or professional development events, write and speak on their specific niche area of law, and engage in other development activities. These activities benefit the associate attorney, but they also benefit the law firm in terms of public relations and advertising. Staff attorneys, however, tend not to have access to the same firm resources as associate attorneys on the partner track.
However, this is not universally true. Many associate attorneys, particularly junior associate attorneys, do not receive as many professional development opportunities as midlevel and senior associate attorneys. Firm size and resource availability will impact how those resources are allocated, even among associate attorneys on the partner track.
Development and Mentorship
Adjacent to the discussion of firm resource allocation, staff attorneys are customarily not mentored to the same degree that associate attorneys on the partner track might receive mentoring. This differs based on how the law firm’s mentorship program works. Is there a formal program or do attorneys select their own mentors? Does your law firm require partners to mentor associates and/or staff attorneys? Are mentorship hours billable? Neither the firm resource allocation discussion nor the mentorship discussion is universally true at all law firms, but they tend to be true at bigger law firms. However, even among larger law firms, there are significant differences.
6. Is it possible to start on one track and switch to the other?
Switching between a partner track associate attorney role and a staff attorney role is possible. However, this process is highly dependent upon the law firm, the attorney’s knowledge, area of law, and experience. Some law firms allow staff attorneys to transition to junior associate attorney roles after some time at the firm. On the other hand, some law firms strictly hire staff attorneys for the non-partner track.
We recommend that if you have the opportunity to interview for one of these two roles, you ask the interviewer what the firm’s flexibility is in making a switch between the two tracks if you want a change in your legal career. In the process of moving from a staff attorney at a firm to an associate attorney on the partner track at a firm, or vice versa, keep in mind that there will be some adjustments you will need to make. If you’re interested in a particular firm that offers both roles and you are uncertain which one is best suited for you, it may be worthwhile to discuss each role with someone in that role at the firm to glean some more firm-specific information!
7. How does an attorney decide which one is right?
This is where a discussion of personal core values and goals becomes paramount. If you prefer to have a more stable set of working hours and more stable expectations, have significant family obligations, or merely don’t align with the expectations set forth on the partner track, that is okay! And if you want to be a partner at a law firm one day, that is okay too! We recommend that you take stock of your core values. Think about what you want out of your legal career and how you define success. Using these parameters, you can decide on whether the partner track versus being a staff attorney suits you best! Ultimately, it is important to make the career decision that is best for you and your life.
Check out JD Advising’s other blog post about attorney life and bar preparation including How Lawyers Can Give Back to the Community, and Approaching Running While Studying for the Bar Exam.