The environment inside many private law firms can be quite fascinating, and often intimidating for new employees. There is a whole new language to learn, especially in terms of firm leadership and navigating the firm hierarchy. For example, what is the difference between a firm partner and non-equity partner? What about a non-equity partner versus Of Counsel? And, of course, what about an associate versus Of Counsel? The answers may surprise you. Below is an overview of these different professional firm titles.
At private law firms in Florida, and across the country, associates are generally the newest attorneys at the firm. They are typically recruited directly from law schools or lateral from other firms. Typically, associates have six years or less of legal experience and are placed on a “track” that may lead them to becoming a partner down the road. However, it is important to note that there is a mini-hierarchy within the associate class. For example, some firms have “junior” associate positions and “senior” associate positions. These designations are usually related to the amount of experience an attorney possesses.
In some firms, new associates share support staff such as paralegals and secretaries. Associates might also be placed into specific practice groups so they can develop expertise in a particular area of the law (e.g., litigation group, government contracts group, antitrust group, etc.).
Of counsel is a unique position within the law firm hierarchy. It is not at the level of a firm partner, but is considered to be someone higher up the proverbial food chain than an associate. The position is typically given to an attorney who has worked for the firm for a while and plans to stay around.
The Of Counsel title is routinely given to an attorney who may be older and left private practice to work in-house at a corporation, to go into public service with the state or federal government, to become a judge, etc. When an attorney leaves these non-firm jobs and returns to private practice, they will likely receive the Of Counsel title. An example would be an attorney who joins a private law firm out of law school, then goes on to work for the Department of Justice in the Solicitor General’s Office for 10 years before deciding to return to private practice. Attorneys like this can generally return to the firm in an Of Counsel role. The firm does this to utilize the attorney's high-level government qualifications to help generate new business.
A common “keystone” objective within the private law firm career path is for an associate to eventually work their way up to “partner.” For many decades, there was simply a single partnership level at many firms. However, in the 1980s, some large law firms began to hire consulting firms who highlighted the fact that some partners were simply not generating enough business while still reaping the benefits of the “partner” title. Hence, the creation of the “non-equity partner” position. Being a non-equity partner is akin to being a senior associate, but with the additional responsibility to bring in new business. It may also mean you still receive a standard salary, rather than distributions that an equity partner would receive.
The position of equity partner in large Florida law firms is generally considered to be the “top of the food chain” within the firm hierarchy. It means you will receive partnership distributions which, if the firm performs well, can be quite rewarding.
An equity partner is generally considered to be someone with a strong reputation inside and outside of the firm, and who is capable of both representing clients and generating new business. The latter portion of that statement is extremely important for equity partners since attaining that title means you take an interest in the "business side" of the firm, which includes projecting profits and losses and looking for new ways to grow the firm’s book of business and portfolio of clients. In addition, equity partners are responsible for the following responsibilities:
- Conducting professional evaluations of associates and non-equity partners;
- Making financial decisions about when to hire new associates and when to let associates go;
- Taking on the responsibility of firing employees;
- Contributing to the decision to promote or hire new partners and others;
- Making decisions about opening offices and closing offices;
- Being responsible for pitching potential new clients; and
- Helping market the law firm.
If that wasn’t enough, additional responsibilities for equity partners include being a point of contact for firm clients, recruiting new attorneys, creating multi-year budgets for the firm and helping identify areas of growth for the firm, and keeping client files secure and protected.
As you can see, being an equity partner means you are in charge of running the firm as a business and making sure it turns a profit year in and year out. This is essential because if the firm has a “rough” year and does not generate a profit, it is the equity partners that typically take the biggest hit financially. Associates and other attorneys who are salaried employees will get their paychecks while equity partners could see a dip in their income during a lean period. Of course, as mentioned, when the firm has a “big” year, it is the equity partners who typically reap the biggest reward in terms of total compensation.
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