The path to law firm partnership just keeps getting longer

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REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
  • The time it takes an entry-level associate to make partner has grown to nearly nine years, survey shows
  • Kirkland and Weil Gotshal recently shortened their partnership tracks

(Reuters) - The number of years it takes to become partner at a major law firm is getting longer and longer, new research shows, despite tentative moves by some large firms to speed the way.

Associates last year took an average of nearly nine years to make partner at the firms where they began their careers, according to legal industry consultancy Leopard Solutions, which tracked both equity and nonequity partnership promotions at about 1,000 U.S. law firms.

Its survey, released Thursday, showed the time it takes for entry-level associates to become partners at their firms reached 3,185 days on average last year, an increase of 136% from when it began tracking the data in 2012.

Lawyers who swap firms as associates are also treading a longer path to partnership than they once were. The time it takes lateral associates to make partner has increased by more than 61% over the last nine years to 1,550 days, according to the report.

The data didn't surprise legal recruiters. Keeping partnership size in check allows for higher profits per equity partner, a defining metric of law firm strength used in recruiting, said San Francisco-based recruiter Avis Caravello.

According to Michelle Fivel, a partner at legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, the baseline expectation for associates at top law firms to enter equity partnership is about 10 years. She said firms are more likely to embrace options such as counsel and nonequity partner positions than to open the partnership books more quickly.

Still, at least two leading national law firms have shortened their partner tracks as competition for midlevel associate talent has become more fierce in recent years. Kirkland & Ellis last December said it shortened its equity partnership timeline from 10 to nine years, while Weil, Gotshal & Manges made a similar move in 2018, cutting its partner track from nine-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half years.

Laura Leopard, founder and CEO of Leopard Solutions, predicted more firms would follow suit to make themselves more appealing to lateral and entry-level associates. But others aren't so sure that existing partners will be willing to share their piece of the pie.

"I think, frankly, one of the last levers that they would pull is a shortening of the partnership track," said Fivel.

Read more:

Kirkland shortens path to full partnership amid legal talent war

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Xiumei Dong covers legal industry news, with a focus on law firm strategy and growth, in-house counsel and the Washington, D.C., legal market. Reach her at