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What Can You Do If You Don't Make Partner?

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on April 22, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You've always had a dream of being a partner. Perhaps you were one of those very lucky grads who landed a position at a top law firm and moved your way into one of the associate seats, ready to show the guys at the top what you were made of.

Before you knew it, five years went by. And you're still not partner. In fact, attorneys who joined after you have made it, but you haven't! What happened? What do you do now?

All Might Not Be Lost

First, keep in mind that five years (or however long you've been an associate at your firm) might not be long enough. Partnership tracks vary significantly between firms. After five years at one firm, you may already know that you'll never be moving up. At others, firms can wait eight, nine, ten years or longer before attorneys are up for partner.

Second, know that if you're not given a partnership offer, it doesn't mean that you are not a good lawyer. Bigger firms may bring on dozens of associates, while never intending to extend partnership offers to the vast majority of them.

If your heart is set on making partner at your current firm, start with the basics. Ask the existing firm leadership what your chances are, and demand to know what you can do to prove your worth to them.

If you've actually been passed up by other, more junior associates, though, your odds of making partner at this firm are low. So if you really love the firm, ask about the possibility of becoming a senior attorney, rather than a partner. Otherwise, start looking elsewhere.

Lateral Out or Strike Out on Your Own?

But if you really want to call yourself partner and you've gotten to the point of becoming invisible in your firm, it's your time to "lateral out" of there, as young, ambitious attorneys like to say. This is because you don't have a set reputation at a new law firm and you can make new impressions tabula rasa. And by the time you get to the new place, you'll already be armed with years of experience, know-how and your own book of clients.

And those clients are your best bet for a lateral move. While a successful lateral shift depends on a host of factors -- are there any other admiralty firms in your area? Are you willing to move if there aren't? -- being able to bring business with you to a new firm is going to be your best selling point.

Or, you can take that business and run -- right into your own practice. After all, when you're a solo practitioner, there's no other option but being in charge.

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