Off the Beaten Partner Track: Law Jobs Offer Better Work-Life Balance

Back when I was a lawyer, the path to a partner position was well-defined: Graduate from law school. Join a firm as an associate and hope you become a partner after seven-plus years of exceeding your billable hour requirements. Or exit quietly if you didn’t make the cut. This “up or out” system was the norm in legal careers for years; but client and employee demands are now shaking up this traditional model, resulting in more career options than an equity partnership.

Some of these new options address the need to achieve greater work-life balance. To attract and retain top talent, more firms are offering flexible schedules and telecommuting opportunities. Others are experimenting with non-partnership-track positions that offer lower salaries, but require fewer billable hours and less travel.

These new roles go by many different names, such as staff attorney, income partner and career associate, to name just a few. And since non-partner tracks emerged relatively recently, law firms may define the positions and criteria differently. But regardless of the job titles, they have one thing in common: They’re good options for legal professionals who want to do challenging and stimulating work without having to sacrifice their personal lives.

Clients are also driving this change in lawyer jobs, as our latest Future Law Office research reveals, due to their demands for more cost-efficient legal services. These demands, in turn, are prompting firms to reevaluate their business models, add options such as alternative billing, and hire more non-equity lawyers.

Weighing the pros and cons

Whether to opt out of the partner track depends on a lawyer’s professional and personal goals.

Aside from more “standard” work hours (closer to 40 hours a week than 80), these alternative legal careers typically come with limited travel requirements. Another advantage is that these types of positions rarely involve staff management or business development, so they allow attorneys to focus more intently on practicing law and working with clients and relieve them from the pressure of having to bring in clients.

(Alternative legal careers are) good options for legal professionals who want to do challenging and stimulating work without having to sacrifice their personal lives.

The main drawbacks of working outside the partner track relate to pay and prestige. Although many staff lawyers are well paid, their wages are usually around one-quarter to one-half of what their partner-track colleagues make. In addition, the compensation for non-equity partners is based mainly on salary, plus performance bonuses and perhaps a portion of the profit pool. In short, neither their starting salary nor their annual total compensation will ever match those of their partner-track colleagues.

Other types of lawyer jobs

Another factor to keep in mind is that it’s not an “either-or” situation: Legal careers for attorneys encompass more than just the partner and non-partner tracks. For challenging and meaningful work that pays well, consider corporate law or in-house counsel, academia (including administration), government positions, business and finance, solo practice, legal recruiting, politics, judgeship and more.

The two-tier concept — partner track and non-partner track — was a novelty two decades ago. Today, it’s a full-blown trend, in use by a large and growing number of law firms. Clients want lower billing rates, but not at the cost of receiving less service. Gen Xers and Millennials want interesting and challenging lawyer jobs, but not at the expense of a rich and fulfilling personal life. Attorneys who don’t equate success with making partner can have long and productive legal careers, while still enjoying family, friends and other interests.