Partnership Track

Stop the Partnership Track

By Emmett Berg

Since Axiom opened its San Francisco office less than two years ago, it has received more than 1,500 job applications for fewer than 80 attorney positions. And the New York-based firm, founded in 2001, doesn’t offer partnerships, offices, secretaries, or even desk space (Axiom lawyers work at home or at the client’s workplace). The experience underscores a shift at California law firms away from unflagging dedication to the once-almighty goal of making partner.

The economic uncertainty of the past few years, along with the younger generation’s desire for a better work/life balance, have both helped take the shine off the partnership track. For example, as a way to maximize per-partner profits, existing partners prefer fewer attorneys climbing the ladder to partnership, says Ed Poll, an author on law-firm management.

The trend can ultimately help keep billing rates down. At Chicago-based McDermott, Will & Emery, which has four offices in California, a tier of “staff” attorneys debuted this spring. Off the partner track, these staff attorneys work full time and get full benefits, but they receive “meaningfully lower” pay than first-year associates, says McDermott partner Jeff Stone, declining to reveal specifics.

“These people are perfectly happy to count hours,” Stone says. “What they don’t want is all that other stuff that is part of the partnership track–no firm politics, no client development. And our clients get cost efficiency without losing substantive excellence.”

In San Diego this year, Luce Forward created 14 levels of pay differentiated by performance and skill sets so that each attorney can work more to his or her preferred pace. “We give 100 percent respect to people giving 80 percent of the normal hours,” says managing partner Robert Bell, adding that such attorneys can even remain on the partnership track, although their bonuses and pay are prorated according to the hours the attorney works. “We do this to keep good lawyers.”

Joe Robinson, the author of Work to Live, says big firms especially are “concerned about keeping their Gen-Y people [who] want a life–the opposite of the baby boomer.” Still, rejection of the lockstep toward partnership extends far beyond today’s younger lawyers. Attorneys at the San Francisco office of Axiom are all veterans, with an average of 14 years’ experience. That their work is billed out at no more than $200 per hour points to an increasing willingness to trade cash for the chance to get a life: Axiom attorneys can dictate their own workload, down to as little as one workday a week. “We set client expectations around [our attorneys] having that control,” says Mehul Patel, Axiom’s executive vice president and general manager in San Francisco.

So far, clients appear satisfied with the results: Axiom CEO Mark Harris says the firm’s revenues are expected to hit $65 million this year, up from $38 million in 2007, and $1 million in 2002.