Summary: Law firms are filled with more than just lawyers acting as partners. If you will be working in a law firm (or working with one), it is smart to know who may be working there.
A law office is comprised of a number of staff members beyond just the one with right to practice law. No matter the size of the law firm, there will be more than just one person working in the office. Large law firms will employ a wider range of support staff, but even a sole practitioner will have at least one employee to support their administrative needs. Whether you are working in a law firm or seeking out a law firm to help you with legal needs, it is important to understand who and what each member of the firm is doing.
Here are the typical employees you can expect to find working at a law firm:
Partners: The owners of the law firm are typically called “partners.” They are often the most experienced lawyers at the firm so they have the highest fees and share the overall profits of the firm. They may also be called “Members” or “Shareholders” with a “Managing Partner” that oversees the operations of the firm. Generally law firm firms do not refer to their partners or leaders as “CEO” or “President.”
Managing Partners: This attorney is the person in charge. They are at a senior level or are a founding lawyer of the law firm. The managing partner handles the day-to-day operations of the firm, often heading an executive committee of other senior partners. They often have a full-time law practice in addition to their management responsibilities.
Equity Partners: These partners are performing at or above the law firms standards set for partners. These partners have excellent reputations not only within the firm but outside as well. They have a large book of business and are able to generate more business. This makes them a valuable member of the firm that supports associates and bills large numbers of hours.
Non-Equity Partners: This term began in the 80s when law firms realized that some partners are not very profitable. These partners do not have significant business and receive a salary instead of partnership distributions. Being a non-equity partner is not a good thing. These are either associates being trained and given time to develop business before being let go or former equity partners that are no longer making it and are being given a little more time to turn things around.
Associates: These are lawyers that are employed by the firm but are not owners. While they are still great lawyers, they generally have less experience than the partners. The do a large amount of the work but it is reviewed by a partner. For the first few years, they usually have very little contact with clients. Associates often have to work for three to even ten years before being considered for partnership. Since they have less experience, they have lower fees.
Contract Lawyers: Law firms will sometimes hire lawyers as independent contractors to do part-time or temporary work. Contract lawyers are usually paid on an hourly basis by the firm which then turns around and bills out their time at a high rate to cover costs. Law firms often resort to contract lawyers when they are especially busy or need a specific expertise.
Of Counsel Lawyers: Law firms often develop relationships with lawyers under an “of counsel” arrangement. These relationships are often hard to define but often involve a part-time contract of some sort. An example of this may be a lawyer who wants to be home with their family but wants to maintain a relationship with the firm, just not as a partner.
Law Clerks: Often law clerks are current law students that are working for academic credit or for a small amount of money. They do legal research and assist lawyers in the preparation of cases and other related matters. Firms bill out clerks at a much lower rate. This means they are a benefit for clients needing time-intensive work to be done where expertise is not required. Law clerks are also a great way for law firms to recruit new associates, with many receiving job offers after their graduation from law school. They are also referred to as “summer associates.”
Paralegals: Paralegals are not lawyers, so they perform quasi-legal functions and assist lawyers. They serve an important role in law firms by providing support to lawyers busy with cases. Paralegals have a working knowledge of the law, courts, and administrative procedures. They work under the supervision of a lawyer on the detailed work but are billed at low rates.
Legal Secretaries: Lawyers end up with piles of administrative work and procedural requirements that come with practicing law. They don’t have time to deal with this work so they rely on legal secretaries to organize and assist them with the daily affairs related to their practice. Legal secretaries are often called “legal assistants.”
Legal Assistants: This term is a broad reference to anyone that assists attorneys at a law firm on legal matters. This can include paralegals, legal secretaries, and others. They usually do not have a law license but do have experience with legal work such as recent college graduates with the proper education to tackle tedious tasks like summarizing deposition transcripts.
Record Clerks: Lawyers need someone to keep track of, organize, and maintain their case files. Generally a record clerk will prepare files and documents for storage and stress-free retrieval. This may include the packaging of boxes, inventory of items in the boxes, documentation and labeling of the boxes, and coordinating the delivery to offsite storage locations. They are very detail-oriented and thorough in their work. Much of this work is turning to computer storage solutions so retrieval is much simpler. Record clerks are often responsible for checking files to make sure there are no conflicts of interest with other clients and cases. Another term for this employee is “court clerk.”
Receptionists: Law firms large and small often have a receptionist that serves as the first contact between the public and the firm. They answer phones and greet clients at the door. Some paralegals or legal assistants will do both duties depending on the needs of the firm.
Administrative Personnel: These are your human resources, bookkeepers, billing and accounts receivable, accountants, librarians, and mail personnel. Large law firms will need the additional personnel to run internal operations on a daily basis. They are part of the overhead costs the law firms have to cover with their billing rates.
Marketing Directors: There are a lot of law firms out there, so they need marketing directors to help them attract more clients over the competition. Marketing Directors are responsible for retaining clients. Generally, large law firms are the ones able to afford such staff.
Other Staff: Some of the other staff members of a law firm that may be full-time, part-time, or temporary include technology experts, clerical staff, operations manager, runners, bookkeepers, and others. Clients generally won’t have any interaction with these employees.