Associates at many Biglaw firms only work with a few senior partners for wide swaths of their careers. Partners like to work with associates with whom they are most familiar, and partners and associates can develop work habits that can make them more productive than if other people in an office worked on tasks. However, associates should be wary of just working with one senior partner and should strive to work with several senior partners as they progress in their careers.
One of the biggest hazards of working with one senior partner is that the fortunes of that partner can determine the fortunes of associates who work with that partner. For instance, I once worked at a firm where the office mostly worked on matters generated by one single partner. Many of the associates who were working with this partner had worked with him for years and had even bounced around to different firms to follow this partner as he moved shops. For a time, this loyalty paid off, and associates were elevated to counsel and partner positions in large part due to their contributions to this partner’s matters.
However, as the partner progressed in his career, his book of business got smaller, as often happens when lawyers approach retirement. Accordingly, many associates lost their jobs not because of any performance issues, but because there just wasn’t enough work for these associates to handle, and partners who had work favored the associates that had been loyal to them over the years. It can be easy in the moment to think that a partner’s gravy train will last forever, but this was a somewhat foreseeable situation that many associates did not plan for. This left people without good options when they needed to leave a firm because the senior partner’s book of business dried up.
Sometimes, associates can get punished even if a partner they primarily work with does not retire. Partners, like associates, move firms somewhat frequently during their careers. When a partner heads to a different shop, they might not be able to take all of the associates who worked for them to the new firm, and associates who stay behind might be in a difficult position.
For instance, I once worked at a law firm that was having significant economic issues. Some of the partners who had healthy books of business wanted to head to the exits since they might be able to earn more money at another shop, and they could see the writing on the wall that the firm might not stay in business much longer. One partner that at least five associates worked for decided to leave the firm after a recruiter scouted him for a new opportunity.
If I remember correctly, the partner was only allowed to take two associates with him to the new firm. This was likely because his book of business was not large enough to completely support all five, or perhaps the partner would be unable to bring all of the work with him to the new firm. The associates who stayed all looked for new opportunities since they knew they might be on the chopping block if the firm conducted layoffs, and the ones that stayed by the time layoffs occurred got the ax. The associates who had formed bonds with multiple partners were favored when it came time to conduct layoffs, and they were mostly spared.
Sometimes, even intrafirm politics can make it risky for an associate to hitch their wagon to one partner. For instance, some partners at a firm have more “juice” than others. This is usually a result of how much business the partner has, intraoffice politics, and other factors. The partners who are more favored by management at a firm might secure managing partner positions or be allowed to work on lucrative books of business, and the benefits of this can flow down to associates who work for the partner.
For instance, I once worked at a law firm in which two partners had differing views about the direction of the firm. One partner wanted to focus on one type of work and move the office to a different location, and another partner wanted to focus on the type of work we already handled and keep the office where it was. Firm management eventually sided with the partner who wanted to change course for our office. All of the associates who worked for the favored partner benefited from this move, and the associates who worked for the other partner were disadvantaged.
All told, the politics of law firm offices can be brutal, and associates might want to align with only one main partner, especially if this partner has tons of work. Nevertheless, political winds can change at a firm rather quickly, and associates should be hesitant to hitch their wagon to just one partner.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.