ASSOCIATES FOCUS ON PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLVING PATHS TO PARTNERSHIP

August 26, 2012

Several weeks ago I posted a blog entry on the results of the 2010 annual survey of attitudes among midlevel associates—attorneys in their third, fourth and fifth years of practice—at AmLaw 200 firms conducted by The American Lawyer.  In addition to my previous comments, I wanted to be sure to highlight that the respondents have taken note of the changes that many firms have announced with respect to training and promoting associates and that 28% of them confirmed that their firms have announced new associate development models that veer away from the traditional lockstep approach toward basing advancement and salary increases on performance reviews and demonstrated mastery of certain practice skills.  60% of the respondents at the firms that have adopted the new model claimed to like the changes; however, there was also evidence of unrest and uncertainty about how the models will be implemented and whether they will reward “performance” as seen through the eyes of associates.  Partners commented that the developments are intended to move law firms toward a more merit-based system, as has already been done among other professional service providers, and that it should be expected that some associates will see this as a more challenging environment to pursue their careers.

A related issue for many associates was the road for achieving the partnership level at their firms.  While much has been written about alternative career paths and “work/life balance”, almost three-quarters of the mid-level associates at the AmLaw 200 firms acknowledged they had placed themselves on the “partner track.”  These associates generally recognized that it was not always possible, or even likely, that they would achieve their goal—in fact, only 35% of the respondents believed they would still be with their current firm in any capacity five years from now; however, they felt that firms had a duty to their associates to be more transparent about what it would take to “make partner” and what milestones should be pursued along the way to ensure that those who wanted to attain partnership were comfortable that they were making the requisite progress.  In general, smaller firms were thought to be the one who were doing a better job with regard to openness about the partnership selection process.

Overall, the firms that showed the most improvement in the rankings they received from their associates tended to be those that were perceived as doing a good job with their training, communication and evaluation processes for associates.  Among other things, these firms moved aggressively to institutionalize professional development functions, increase training and communicate with associates regarding the hot button issues such as compensation, promotion and partnership paths.