Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Part I – The Allure of Partnership

Greetings from Missoula, Montana. Since my husband left for New York last Sunday, I have been traveling around Montana by myself. Like what the lyrics say — “life is a highway and I want to ride it all night long” — long-distance driving alone always puts me in a contemplative mood reflecting on where I have been and where I am heading.

The eight-month journey leading to me giving notice to quit, which started with the straw I’ve written about, was a complicated and rambling one, full of internal dialogues, doubts, exhilaration, fear and contradictions. It was a process in which I actively tried to analyze the situation rationally while fully aware of aspects where I had emotional hang-ups; a process in which I tried to use all my legal skills like due diligence and evaluating my options but ultimately followed my gut.

Although the decision has been made and executed, I am still working through and making sense of certain parts of this process. This post will be my attempt to describe my thinking in a more streamlined fashion. Due to the length, it will be split it into several parts.

Part I – Do I Want to Make Partner?

I had always reveled, even as a first year (an entry-level lawyer, for the non-lawyers out there), in speculating with fellow associates which of the senior associates would make partner. However, I had always been ambivalent about whether I should gun for partnership myself. I didn’t start to seriously consider my own chances until after I had returned to New York from London last year. Being at the mothership as a sixth year, I thought to myself that I better figure this out soon because it was time to double down — or get out.

The benefits of being a partner are apparent — the prestige, the money, the respect, the belonging to a rather exclusive “club”, the ability to boss around associate “minions”, among other things. However, as more of my lawyer friends starting to make partner at various BigLaw firms, I realized that becoming a partner is not the panacea to all the hardship faced by associates. Partners, especially junior to mid-level partners, still work insane hours, but with the added stress of being responsible and liable for a transaction. They also need to deal with other headaches that are more shielded from associates, such as the pressure of bringing in new clients, keeping old clients happy, firm politics, and firm finances and so on.

Separate from whether I would be willing to bill 2,500-3,000 hours for the next few years to be a contender for partner, I also started to evaluate the overall chances of making partner given my specific situation at this moment in time at my particular firm, Simpson Thacher. The odds were stacked against me.

1. The economic climate has changed drastically since 2007. Marking partner post-2007 is significantly harder than in previous years because almost all law firms have become more conservative, and Simpson is no exception. It is no longer an eight-year track, but more like nine to ten years (at least in my group, the M&A department). I don’t think there will be a return to the good ol’ days within the next three to four years.

2. The bad economy also means associate attrition has been at record low. There were many well-regarded senior associates in the pipeline ahead of me and a large class of home-grown associates a year below me. Competition is at all-time high.

3. I was a lateral (albeit from Davis Polk, an equally prestigious firm) who didn’t know and didn’t work with many “important” partners at the New York mothership. To make the cut, one really needs to have “important” partners to be your champion.

4. I didn’t know for sure if I was good enough of a lawyer to become a partner (and I guess I never will know). I had great reviews, but great reviews don’t guarantee partnership. Until the time the partnership is announced, you simply don’t know whether you’ve made it or got tossed.

In parallel with this analysis of my desire and ability to make partner, I also tried to figure out whether I inherently enjoyed the technical aspects of legal practice, focusing on the substance and the skills of what lawyers do on a day to day basis, separate from the intensity or the consumptive nature of the practice in BigLaw. I realized that while I did enjoy many aspects, I didn’t like drafting. To memorialize other people’s meeting of the mind into Articles, Sections, Clauses and Sub-clauses and then tagging on a few provisos just didn’t provide the same excitement as, say, organizing the wires behind my computer system or analyzing our family finances in an Excel sheet. I wasn’t bad at drafting — actually I was pretty good at it — but I don’t think I had the natural talent for it nor did I really care to develop an expert-level skill in it. Drafting is the bread (schmoozing is the butter) of what the lawyers do.

So, by last Christmas, I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t want to make partner. Was I being the fox saying the grapes are sour when I coveted them but couldn’t reach them? Maybe so, subconsciously. But the conclusion at the end of the day was that doubling down would not be worthwhile for me.

I was always of the opinion (and still am) that if one doesn’t want to make partner at BigLaw, then there is no point in staying at BigLaw. To me, the amount of money earned as an associate is not worth the amount of hours slaved away nor the stress suffered. The topic of money will be extensively dealt with in this series.

So, the question then became whether I wanted to stay in law, which will be the topic of my next post of this series.  Stay tuned!  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your reaction.

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