The Evolving Law Firm Food Chain: What’s in a Name?

Firms have evolved a plethora of titles for their attorneys—what do they all mean, and is their proliferation actually bad for the profession?

Steven J. Harper

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Not long ago, an attorney’s place in a law firm was clear and unambiguous. Lawyers were either partners or associates. Measuring career progress was equally simple: Associates worked hard until they either became partners or left the firm. Not anymore. In recent years, law firms have developed a plethora of new titles for their attorneys.

For the most part, managing partners have done a splendid job marketing these new categories: “We hear you. We are responding to young attorneys’ demands for greater choice. We are bucking tradition and innovating to create new options for you.” They’ve perfected the pitch to millennials who are eager to embrace it: “We see your work-life dilemmas. We want you to have a career as well as an existence outside the practice of law. You should be able to pick the work option—and the associated career track and title—that works best for you.”

This public relations gloss has accompanied the proliferation of attorney titles, especially in big firms. Making things even more complicated, not all lawyers within the same general category possess the same power or status. A striking example is the category of equity partner—the ultimate big law achievement. To be sure, becoming an equity partner in any big firm is a significant and increasingly rare accomplishment. But at most firms, that status alone provides no meaningful voice in firm affairs or the working environment in which most equity partners themselves labor. That may seem odd but, as a glossary of common labels in big law firms explains, it’s true.

Without a scorecard, it’s difficult to identify the players. Not all firms have the same titles for their attorneys, but most have structures into which the following general categories fit. We’ll start at the top and work our way down the big firm food chain.

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