Let’s say you own a typical small business. You have two candidates seeking to fill one position in your company. In terms of their credentials, the two candidates are virtually identical. The only material difference between the two is that the second candidate has 10 more years of relevant work experience? Who do you hire? If you really are a business owner or manager, your answer would probably be the second candidate. But would that also your answer be if you were a partner in a law firm?
I regularly receive calls from “senior attorneys” seeking help on their job search. I mean “senior” in a very broad sense, in the way the law firms define it. At about 1-2 years out of law school, you are a “junior associate.” At 3-4 years or so, you are a “midlevel associate.” And at about 5-6 years, you are a “senior associate,” a title that may extent 1-2 years further, depending on the firm. After 7-8 years, if you have not already made at least the first level of partnership, an issue arises as to what law firms will call you. Generally, law firms do not have associates past 8th year, so such firms show typically you the door. The term I find that best defines the situation is “senior attorney” – meaning too senior to be an associate (or more than 7-8 years out of law school). Senior attorneys face a difficult dilemma in the market. It is a dilemma I call the “senior attorney trap” because it greatly decreases your market value automatically as you accumulate more experience. In other words, it is a trap that you simply cannot avoid. Many senior attorneys who are looking are unaware that they are in this trap. This is especially true of solo practitioners, who have not practiced in a firm for a long time, if at all.
For example, I received a recent call from a “senior attorney” who was about 15 years out from law school. He also had no significant portable business, which would have made him able to seek a position in a law firm as a partner. Without such business, I explained, he was in the “senior attorney trap” and thus would find it very difficult to find him work in a law firm. The candidate pointed out, quite reasonably, that he has a lot more experience than any of the associates in the law firms. Unfortunately, while this may have weight in the business world (see example at top), it has very little weight in the legal world. Generally speaking, law firms will not hire lawyers that are more “senior” than the amount of years sought for a particular associate position. There are, of course, a few exceptions. For example, a firm seeking an associate with 4-6 years of experience may decide to hire a 7th year associate who has especially good credentials. But you won’t normally see “15th year associates” or someone out of law school for 15 years working as a 5th year associate in a major law firm. The one place where an exception is more likely to be found is in a very small firm, as such firms can make their own rules.
There are also exceptions to the “portable business” rule, although they too are few and limited. A a general rule, major firms will not hire a senior attorney just because they are a great lawyer and/or have great credentials, like they may do for an associate (provided they have enough work). Instead, the partner candidate are generally required have substantial portable business, ranging from about $500K for smaller firms to $3M+ for major firms. In other words, the partner must be able to keep themselves (and preferably others also) busy. Sometimes, however, law firms will make an associate a partner who lacks sufficient business, but usually only if some other partner is generating enough work to cover him. The other exception is that on rare occasions major firms will hire senior attorneys who lack sufficient business, usually as “of counsel.” But again, this is only done if there is enough work from another partner, client or other source that can keep the new partner fully occupied and where there is no one else in the firm who can do the work. As soon as that big deal or case slows down, a partner or counsel finds themselves with not enough work to be fully busy faces being “downsized” by the firm.