At the largest firms in big markets like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, we still see a pyramid structure in which associates outnumber partners (though barely). Recent search work for clients in Denver, Detroit and Minneapolis, however, reveal that on a broader scale, at firms of all sizes, the pyramid has turned upside down. Within the more specific sweet spot of associates with three to six years of experience, those considered the most profitable for firms and desirable to clients, there are often several partners for every one associate.
Even within the large market firms, a closer look reveals what amounts to a one-for-one ratio at best after subtracting attorneys with non-partner track titles such as staff attorney or senior attorney. As industry consultant Jerry Kowalski points out, non-equity junior partners have taken on the worker bee role formerly held by associates, especially in corporate transactional departments.
I predict that associates with three or more years of experience will disappear even more quickly in 2013, because I am optimistic about the economy generally, and law department growth specifically, in the year to come. That may sound illogical, so let me explain.
The really good mid- to senior-level associates are inundated with work, they have fewer contemporary colleagues within their firms and they fully grasp that rainmaking will be important if they stay on the law firm path longer term. In other words, in recruiter speak, they are very movable. Just two years ago, many underworked associates were departing from firms involuntarily. Now, in a swift adjustment to supply and demand, the remaining associates are calling the shots. Many are now leaving for inside counsel roles, as they are hitting the threshold level of desirability for counsel to senior counsel level positions.
This impacts our inside counsel readership profoundly. For almost five years I have been predicting that unemployed or underemployed senior level inside counsel would start landing jobs with somewhat junior level titles, overcoming the “overqualified” stigma in favor of offering the most value. It has not been happening, however. Law departments have stayed away from “overqualified” candidates. With the death of the associate upon us, though, I predict yet again that companies will turn to the best available option.
To use a baseball analogy, law firms have shut down the minor league training system. Unless departments create their own minor leagues by hiring straight out of law school (some do), then they must hire from other law departments. Inside counsel tend to only move laterally at the general counsel level; otherwise, a significant next step up in title and pay is usually required to attract in-house candidates. This makes it challenging to fill staff level counsel to senior counsel openings with lateral hires from other law departments.
Follow the logic and do the math. Besides, not every “overqualified” attorney is meant to be a general counsel. Many offer personalities and skill sets that fit really well into the staff level roles. They are experienced and ready to go. Now I think, perhaps, finally, for at least this window in time, they are marketable as well.