Associate vs. Partner in a Law Firm

Associate vs. Partner

Associate vs. Partner – While some organizations embrace the managerial-supervisory-employee workforce structure, others such as law and accounting firms choose a somewhat different structure that involves associate-levels to junior, senior, and finally managing partnership positions. Although the distinction between an associate and partner is deemed significant within careers that embrace such organizational structures, the average person may find trouble distinguishing the two. So what makes all the difference between an associate and partnership position in the case of law firms? Associates are merely regular workers with fixed salaries, employee benefits and have no equity in the firm. On the other hand, partners enjoy partial ownership of the firm through equity ownership and enjoy the entity’s shared profit and organizational decision-making.

Associate vs. Partner

How to Become an Associate (in a law firm)

  • Be a College graduate with a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree in the following Majors: 
    • Political Science
    • Criminal Justice
    • Psychology
    • History
    • English
    • Philosophy
    • Economics 
    • Sociology
    • Communication 
    • Science
  • Take a Law School Admission Test (LSATs) and get an above-average score (usually 150).
  • Attend Law School and graduate with a Juris Doctor’s degree (except in California, Washington, Virginia, and Vermont).
  • Take the Bar exam within your state for a law License.
  • Start practicing law.
  • Apply for an associate position in a law firm.

How to become a Partner in a Law firm

  • Have at least 7-10 years experience as an associate.
  • Have commendable performance as an associate.
  • Find a niche within your practice and specialize.
  • Have a strong work ethic coupled with a good leadership personality.

Differences Between an Associate and a Partner

  • Specialization: Since associates are usually inexperienced employees, they get to work for the firm in any assigned capacity to build vast experience in their career while learning the politics and economics around the firm in which they work. As they transition from entry-level to experienced associates, they become more specialized, often aligning themselves with particular cases and tasks. In contrast, partners are fully specialized and only work within their niche. For instance, if a partner chooses to specialize in intellectual or financial law, that becomes their niche, and they handle all legal aspects about cases of such nature.

  • Organizational Economics: As pointed out, an associate is usually a regular employee who performs a series of tasks for the firm. They are paid a fixed salary and are not required to bring in business. However, they may get bonuses for their performance. Partners, however, are more than employees and take part in partial ownership. As such, they are responsible for increasing the firm’s bottom line by bringing in business. They also earn a share of the entity’s profit and enjoy high yields from their billable hours. However, this prerequisite also means that any losses or adjustments in profits affect their income levels. Thus, an associate has fewer economic risks than a partner, a factor that shall be explored further in the next point. 

  • Risks: Other than the possibility of lower profit margins, partners are faced with more significant risks than associates. First, their level and position within an organization usually hinge on their ability to bring in new business. Should they fail significantly in such tasks, they may be asked to forfeit their partnership position or resign. Associates, however, enjoy their salaries regardless of whether new business comes in or not. Additionally, legal suites may affect partners professionally and financially. For instance, a lawsuit may lower a firm’s business, thus minimizing the partners’ shared profit. Moreover, they risk tainting their reputation for merely associating with an organization with a poor public image. This demerit does not extend to associates as they rank significantly lower in the organizational structure to be exposed.

  • Nature of Work: Associates usually work in groups on specific cases and all firm partners. They are the workforce through whom the firm runs its daily routine and can be called in to assist with any legal task. Partners, however, are usually loners and may choose to work on cases single-handedly or incorporate associates in their business. In the latter situation, the partner operates at a supervisory level over their associates. 

Are all associates of the Same Level?

Much like partners, associates also operate on different levels. They begin as entry-level attorneys in a junior capacity, often fresh from law school with little to no experience practicing law. After about 6-7 years, they may be promoted to junior associates based on their experience, performance levels, and work merit. Worth noting is that associates, regardless of the number of years spent working for a firm or the level of experience acquired, are never granted a share in a firm’s ownership. Thus, entry-level associates to fifth and sixth-year associates remain employees of the firm.

Are all partners equity partners?

Not all partners are equity partners. Some firms practice a two-tier form of partnership characterized by equity and non-equity partners. The former type of partners is usually regarded as shareholders in the firm and partake in its profits. They also have voting rights. Non-equity partners, on the other hand, are paid fixed rates at regular periods, such as annually. Additionally, they have little to no voting rights. Also, non-equity partners may not be required to contribute capital to the firm. In contrast, equity partners are required to buy into the firm by contributing their share of its capital as a requirement for their position.

What is the salary difference between a partner and an associate?

Partners usually earn more than associates, sometimes by a significant margin. Even non-equity partners, who have not bought into the firm usually, make more than an associate. According to Payscale, the average salary for an associate-level attorney ranges from 50,000-120,000 a year, depending on aspects like certification, education, skillset, and years of experience. On the other hand, a law firm partner’s salary ranges from 100,000-350,000 or more depending on the entity’s profit levels, business and position. For instance, a managing partner may make significantly more than junior and senior partners.

Do all Partners have to begin as associates in the same firm?

Not all firms embrace the culture of rising the organizational ladder from an associate position to a partner. In some cases, a firm may opt to recruit partners from other firms, individuals who were never associates in their new firms. Others adopt the buy-in policy when adopting new partners, allowing individuals from other firms to become partners without considering their previous positions. However, legal professionals have criticized this approach as it is considered why most employees quit employment in favor of starting their practice. Markedly, all partners must first acquire experience at an associate level before being partners in any firm. Hence, while one may become a partner in a new firm, they were still associates at some point in a different entity. 

Also read What is an Associate Producer? – Duties & Salary 2021

Associate vs. Partner in a Law Firm

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