The fact, rarely spoken of publicly, is that law firm partners are simply employees at will.
The issue is framed in the context of (1) a recent federal case in which a female partner was ousted by her partners and claimed she was removed because of her gender and should be afforded the protection of Title VII of the Civil Rights Law, which bars employment discharges because of gender; and (2) recent EEOC proceeedings against several law firms which, in accordance with their partnership agreements were mandatorily forcing partners to retire, again an alleged violation of federal antidiscriminatory laws. In both instances, the law firms argued that law firm partners were owners and therefore employers and not employees. The defense advanced that enterprise ownership was not subject to Title VII. The Courts and federal agency dealing with these issues found that partnership was simply an emolument of employment, not enterprise ownership.
The simple fact is that law firm partners are not just employees, but largely employees at will. The good news is that law firm partners are afforded some statutory benefits: They cannot be discharged based on their membership in certain protected classes. Nor can promotion to partnership decisions be affected by such consideerations.
The troubling news is that the dream of life tenure afforded by admissions to law firm partnerships is largely an illusion, rarely publicly discussed or acknowledged.
Equally causing some degree of consternation is the fact that the contractual protections of partners detailed at length in partnership agreements is equally mythical in the real world.
The American dream is further shattered: Excelling as an associate does not guarantee employment. Partnership does not grant life tenure or even assured continued employment.
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