Understanding Law Firm Hierarchies | Explore law firms and legal advice

In majority law officesThe hierarchy is conceptually set up as a pyramid with partners – senior lawyers – at the top, more junior lawyers below them and so on. But dig deeper and you’ll find that the structure is a bit more complex than meets the eye.

For example, when The Great Law Firms may have individual practice groups with their own departmental hierarchies, effectively functioning as mini-law firms within the larger organization. Smaller firms also have flatter hierarchies that allow for greater flexibility and collaboration, says Jamy Sullivan, managing director of Robert Half International’s legal practice.

Although there are more nuanced aspects to law firm structure and individual firms vary in size and corporate culture, understanding the prototypical law firm hierarchy can be helpful for both attorneys and clients.

Managing Partner

The managing partner sits at the top of the law firm’s hierarchy. In this role, the managing partner establishes the company’s vision and then develops a strategic plan to achieve that goal. The managing partner dictates the firm’s finances, including setting total compensation packages and overhead costs. The managing partner, who often has more than 20 years of experience at the firm, is often elected to the position by the firm’s lawyers, Sullivan says.

As law firms are increasingly managed like other large businesses, some firms now give managing partners a title that reflects their leadership responsibilities, such as CEO, Chairman, or Chief Executive Officer.

Executive Committee and other management committees

In large firms, the managing partners do not manage the firms themselves. Instead, senior partners join them on an executive committee that handles firm-wide issues such as recruiting, compensation, firm mergers and marketing, according to a presentation by Georgetown Law’s Office of Career Strategy.

The Executive Committee is responsible for the advancement of the firm’s business and the practice of law. “I look at it almost like a board of directors,” says Sullivan.

Firms may have other committees that deal with issues such as recruitment. And they may have special committees for topics such as wellness, where they may include more junior lawyers who will be involved in the management aspects of the firm.

Partners

According to surveys by the National Association for Law Placement, partnerships at most large law firms in the country are tiered. Broadly speaking, these tiers consist of equity partners and non-equity partners.

As the firm’s top lawyers, equity partners own the firm’s stock and share in the firm’s profits. They manage the growth of the firm because each partner has a book of business. Crucially, they maintain existing client relationships and attract new clients while meeting the firm’s billable hours requirements each year.

Equity partners have the right to vote on decisions regarding corporate investment, growth and headcount. They supervise lawyers, support staff and – depending on the size of the firm – are often leaders of the firm’s working groups.

A non-equity partner has many of the same responsibilities, but does not have an ownership position in the firm and has more limited voting rights. Non-equity partners often have to make an equity investment in the firm before they can become an equity partner.

A nonequity partnership can also be a longer position or even a permanent option for experienced lawyers who want more flexibility in terms of work-life balance than an equity position would allow, Sullivan says.

Adviser

There are two types of “lawyers” in law firms.

The first are experienced lawyers – often former partners or semi-retired lawyers – who want to be associated with the firm without income requirements. They may work part-time and only for a specific client or on matters in which they have specialized expertise, Sullivan says.

Other “advisory” attorneys are experienced, mid-career attorneys who work full-time and may have leadership roles on specific matters. While some build the book of business they need before becoming partners, others may remain permanently in their “consultant” role.

Co-workers

Associates are lawyers who join law firms as members of a “class” and their status is based on how many years they have worked at the firm since graduation. For example, “first year associate” is straight out Law School and learning standard concepts and procedures.

“Senior Associates” have been with the firm for years. Like junior partners, they handle more complex matters with leadership roles in some cases and oversee junior associates, Sullivan says.

Many large firms operate on an up-or-out system, meaning that employees who have been with the firm for eight to ten years are either invited to become a partner (or attorney) or asked to leave the firm. By then, many associates will have left to join smaller firms or take other positions.

Not every corporate lawyer is on the partnership track

Law firms may also employ permanent associates, staff, or contract attorneys who specialize in a specific type of work, such as case law research and document analysis. These lawyers can play a key role in meeting the internal legal needs of firms, such as managing ethics and conflict programs, Sullivan says.

These attorneys typically do not have requirements for billable hours or bringing business to the firm. Therefore, these positions are sometimes considered better lawyers who prioritize work-life balance. But these lawyers are paid less than partners in a partnership and have limited opportunities for promotion.

Lawyers and other support positions

“Lawyers are the left hand of lawyers. They provide essential support – documentation preparation, research, case management and even basic client communication,” says Sullivan. They relieve lawyers of these tasks so that lawyers can do more strategic work.

AND assistants in practice, it can shift the corporate hierarchy, especially in smaller companies, where a senior associate can effectively overtake a co-worker. Their real-world experience can trump first-year associates, no matter how much they did in law school, he says.

Loosening the hierarchy means more opportunities now and in the future

To retain the talent they can’t afford to lose, many firms have become more flexible and added new levels to partner and non-partner positions.

According to Sullivan, lawyers are more able to decide whether they want to be promoted or stay in a certain position in the hierarchy, rather than facing upheaval.

“It’s hard work to get to the top. There is still complexity and there is still an ecosystem that you have to adhere to, but not to the extent that there was before,” he says.

These new opportunities mean that lawyers’ careers are increasingly defined by their personal goals, not those of the firm.