The Partnership Track-A Blind Race


Reprinted/posted with permission of The Daily Journal Corp (2009)

Fourth in a series of four articles by Edwin Reeser, Jeff Carr, Patrick Lamb and Patrick McKenna

At the beginning of one’s career, one sets upon a course of being a “good soldier,” doing what the system asks of you in the profession’s self-described “tournament” style search for excellence. You must perform better than others so that you may advance within the organization. A large measure of blind faith is involved in doing this (which is amazing considering the cynical nature of most lawyers) because the standards of what it takes to be successful as defined by each firm are not usually communicated clearly or applied evenly – perhaps because they may be neither particularly well-defined nor politically correct in the first place. For the participants, the perception, and all too often the reality, is not so much that they are participating in a rigorously monitored and graded competition, but running a race in a fog with no lanes, no finish lines, no judges and no spectators.

Given industry average attrition rates for associates of about 20 percent per year and eight to 10 year track to partnership, the probability of attaining partnership is poor for those enlisting in the competition. This system renders the cost of advancing the few who survive the ordeal prohibitive. How does a system work at all, let alone efficiently, by hiring the best and brightest talent available from the most prestigious law schools, paying premier salary and benefits packages, and then going through them like tissues in flu season? The cost to the organization is multiples greater than the returns possible from the few that succeed. This cannot be the real purpose - so what is the real story? Maybe the system isn’t about a reward for being the “best of the best” after all. Maybe its portrayal as a tournament, should be revised as a game that has few winners, and which clients subsidize with unnecessarily high fees and costs. A game that drives many of the best and brightest out of the profession by consuming them on a treadmill of relatively meaningless work, and severely limited prospects of advancement. The soylent green wafers the system consumes for nutrition aren’t made from plankton after all.

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