What Do Law Firm Titles Mean?
In 2020, there’s more to learn about the structure and hierarchy of law firms than simply looking at the names in the firm’s title. The practice of law has evolved from the traditional partner/associate firm structure to one more reminiscent of larger business enterprises that closely resemble a multi-tiered corporation. Three-quarters of all attorneys work in law firms.
Modern law firms typically have various levels of positions with different titles, duties, and pay levels. These include individuals who are not lawyers that serve managerial, administrative, and accounting functions, as well as support personnel such as paralegals and secretaries.
A firm may include equity and non-equity partners, various tiers of non-partner attorneys, including counsel, special counsel, and career associates. Law firm titles and the roles of law firm attorneys vary based on the firm’s size and complexity and are determined by the owners and managers of each individual firm.
The managing partner or shareholder is at the top of a law firm’s hierarchy. As the senior-level lawyer of the firm, job duties include managing the day-to-day operations of the firm. The managing partner or shareholder typically heads an executive committee consisting of other senior partners and plays a primary role in determining and guiding the firm’s vision and purpose. These management responsibilities are assumed in addition to maintaining a full-time law practice. Partners and shareholders are usually the only persons who have any ownership interest in the firm. Attorneys with the title of “officer” or “director” usually do not have any similar authority to control the business of the firm.
Law firm partners or shareholders are attorneys who jointly own and operate the firm. The business organization that a law firm chooses varies. Sole proprietorships—firms with just one attorney—general partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs), professional associations, and limited liability partnerships (LLPs) are the most common types.
Many firms utilize a two-tiered partnership structure based on equity and non-equity holdings. Equity partners have an ownership stake in the firm and share profits while non-equity partners are generally paid a fixed salary annually. Depending on the firm, non-equity partners or shareholders may be vested with certain limited voting rights. Non-equity partners may be promoted to full equity status in a few years if they make a capital contribution to the firm, effectively buying a piece of the business.
Associates are typically younger attorneys who have the potential (and hope) to become partners. Large firms divide associates into junior and senior associates, depending on merit and experience level.
Typically, attorneys work as associates for six to nine years before ascending to partnership ranks or “making partner.” This event depends on a combination of factors, including the associate’s legal abilities, client base, earning potential, and chemistry with the firm’s other partners.
*”Of Counsel” Attorneys
Attorneys who are “of counsel” aren’t technically firm employees, but work as independent contractors, typically hired to enhance the firm’s base of expertise and clients. These attorneys are usually vastly experienced, highly reputable, senior lawyers with their own client base, who may also be semi-retired at the time of their engagement, perhaps even retired from working at the same firm. Most of-counsel lawyers work part-time, manage their own cases, and supervise other attorneys and staff.
*Summer Associates or Interns
Summer associates, also known as summer clerks or law clerks, are law students who intern with a firm during the summer months when school is out of session. A summer internship may be unpaid although many firms have summer programs that provide a mechanism to recruit young, promising lawyers. A successful summer associate may receive a permanent offer of employment upon graduation.
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