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Why Do Some Lawyers Turn Down Partner Offers?

African female lawyer discussing with her partners.

I have had a long love affair with the law. It started when I was an undergrad, and I had a professor trained in the Greek and Roman Classics who introduced me to the writings of the Roman lawyer, orator, and politician Cicero. Reading Cicero made me understand what the law is and why it is important.

The law brings to human society clarity in the form of rules and limitations, rights and responsibilities. I never had any doubt that I would become a lawyer, and that I would specialize in criminal law. I joined a busy law-firm in a major city straight out of law school, and it gave me the opportunity to pursue my passion.

I have done well. I was offered partnership a year ago and turned it down. To law school students and junior associates, this may seem like an insane move. However, the goal of practicing law in a law firm need not be partnership.

Here are reasons why some lawyers may turn down a partnership offer:

1. Stress

Young latin lawyer feeling stressed.

Being a lawyer is hectic and stressful. This is especially so if you are an associate in a large law firm. You must balance a number of ongoing cases at the same time.

If you are a litigator, then you must carry out the research, depositions, and other preparation required for a trial or negotiation with the opposing side. You will still need to practice law if you become a partner. Though your workload may be reduced, you must still do all the above for each case.

On top of this, you will need to generate new business, retain clients, and stay on top of the administration. Every client you lose to another lawyer, every ethical breach by an associate, and every letter that is sent in the firm’s name reflects on you and your reputation in the legal community.

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There is simply no room for mistakes when you are a partner. You have a financial and reputational stake in every action or inaction of your associates and fellow partners.

I for one am unwilling to accept that kind of stress. If I am to be stressed, I would prefer to be so on behalf of the clients I represent.

2. Politics and accountability

Handshake of lawyer and politician.

Every lawyer must act in accordance with the ethics rules of the Bar. Accepting a law firm partnership means taking on a different kind of responsibility. You are not only responsible for your own actions but the actions of every other person employed by the firm.

Indeed, you are accountable to the other partners in the firm, all of whom will have an opinion on how each rule should be interpreted in a given situation. The opinions are likely to reflect what best furthers each person’s interests. As a partner, your overdue billing debts affect your partners, and your lack of administrative and management ability will also affect them.

However, very few partners excel in all these things and so the more experienced partners are likely to manipulate situations so that they look good and others look bad. In other words, partner accountability in law firms is only talked about, not practiced. Politics trumps principle.

I have seen this kind of behavior with my own eyes and decided I would rather not be part of it. Law firm partners jockey for positions of strength in this way because it can lead to places of influence and power outside of the firm. If you have no interest in a judgeship, an elected office, or a seat on a corporate board, it is quite safe to turn down a partnership.

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3. From lawyer to a salesperson

Lawyer discussing legal case with client.

When you become a partner, you will be expected to bring in clients. The more billable hours you bring in the more authority and power you have in the firm. Although technically you should continue to practice law, the only thing that your fellow partners really care about is the amount of work you fetch for the firm.

To succeed as a partner, you must dedicate yourself to salesmanship. Your life will become all marketing all the time. The partnership is billed as the pinnacle of a legal career. It is in truth the end of your legal career and the beginning of your career as a business executive.

4. Managing people

Lawyer discussing contract papers sitting at the table.

To succeed as a lawyer, especially as a litigator, you must have some basic management skills. You must certainly learn to manage your time and organize your thoughts, language, and documentation. Partners are required to manage lawyers and other firm employees.

Although you will have a hand in pay, benefits, and other administrative matters, the specialists in your human resources department will take care of most of that. Your primary focus will be on employee counseling and development. You will have to exercise leadership and make decisions about everything from the allocation of workloads to the hiring and firing of associates.

5. Alternative roles in the firm

Group of lawyers, business people standing together.

If your firm does not have an up or out rule, then it may be safe for you to turn down a partnership and negotiate another type of senior role. In my own case, I managed to strike a deal with the firm’s partners in which they made me Senior Counsel. Through my success, experience, and effectiveness as a trial lawyer I have made myself a real asset to the firm.

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They do not want to lose me, but I had no interest in the headaches and politics of partnership. My new position gives me seniority over all the other associates, and I am renumerated accordingly. However, there are other types of deals to be struck.

If you are exceptionally good at research, you can become a sort of professional support lawyer. This will take you away from client-facing duties and put you in libraries and labs, talking to the many technical experts who can make a real difference in a case. This kind of role is especially suitable for lawyers who have a background in technology, engineering, or applied sciences.

6. Leaving for another firm

Lawyer consultant shaking hand with client law firm.

Another good reason to turn down a partnership is the desire to leave for another firm. Many lawyers do this because they feel that the partnership offer has come too late and that they have been treated unfairly over the years. You may also want to leave for a smaller firm that does not put so much emphasis on bringing in new business.

This move is not uncommon for lawyers who have young families. Going to another law firm does not mean that you have to start over. As a colleague of mind states:

“Unless a lawyer decides to move to a substantially different field – such as a litigator deciding he wants to be a transactional lawyer – they’re going to receive full credit for the work they did at their prior law firm.”

7. Leaving to pursue a different career

Portrait of a young lawyer ready to pursue a different career.

The law, and training as a lawyer, open many career avenues. The time you have spent as an associate has given you skills and abilities that you may not be aware of. Management consulting firms and investment banks like to hire experienced lawyers because of their critical thinking skills.

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Businesses of all kinds are in constant need of in-house counsel. There is also the field of politics and the possibility of service in a public institution to consider.