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| 2 minutes read

When Is a “Partner” Really a Partner? Are Clients Getting What They Pay For?

Did you know that many law firms will designate an attorney as a “partner” despite that attorney having no stake in decision-making of the firm and no share in the financial outcomes of the firm? So, what’s in a name? And, when you look at a law firm’s “partners” are you getting the full story? The reality is you may not be investing your litigation dollars where you think you are.

Even in law school I wanted to be a partner. Back then I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded respectable and secure. Growing up with family connections to the entertainment industry (which is often a project –based income), I knew that I wanted job security and financial stability. I wanted to be at the pinnacle of job performance.  I found out quickly that different law firm partnerships have different requirements for becoming a partner. Some require a buy-in, some require time-served, some require demonstrated skills and excellence in the profession. The reality is that most reputable firms based partnership on a combination of these things. In some firms, however, the title of partner is given to attorneys without any of these things and simply to garner higher rates from clients. 

The buy-in assures the firm that a partner who has access to earnings based on the firm’s profitability also has a financial stake in the game. The time-served component ensures that the partner understands the ethics and intent of the firm so they can provide consistency of service and messaging for the firm’s clients. If you hire a Hanna Brophy partner to do the work, you may have a tailored approach to the case strategy, but overall you know what you’re getting based on the firm’s legacy and high standards.  

There is, however, a common practice among many other firms in the defense industry to dole out the title of “partner” to an attorney who has no equity stake in the game, no voting rights in the firm, and no longevity. These may serve to promote stability according to some, but it’s really a thinly-veiled marketing ploy to get you to pay for something shiny while the firm and "partner" have not made any substantial commitment to each other. 

When you hire and pay for a partner to do your work, you should be getting everything that goes with what it takes to become an actual partner. So, the question is, what are you getting from your defense counsel? It may be time to ask some questions. For associates who are ambitious, it might be wise to ask what the true partnership track is at your firm.  At a minimum, it should be understood that not all "partners" are equal. 

Depending on the circumstances and how the firm structures this relationship, that partner title may have no substantive meaning...The non-equity partner may not have any rights or obligations as a partner to the law firm.
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