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Feature Article

December 2014 Issue

Off the Beaten Partner Track: Lawyer Jobs Offering Better Work-Life Balance

by Charles Volkert, Esq.

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 or 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 attain greater work-life balance. To attract and retain top talent in an increasingly competitive hiring environment, more firms are offering flexible schedules and telecommuting opportunities while 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 have emerged relatively recently, it’s often up to each law firm to define the positions and criteria. Regardless of the job titles, they have one thing in common: They’re often good options for legal professionals who want to continue doing challenging and stimulating work without having to sacrifice their personal lives.

Clients also are driving this change in lawyer jobs. The latest report from our Future Law Office research program outlines how clients are demanding 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.

Whether to opt out of the partner track depends on a lawyer’s professional and personal goals. Here are some of pros and cons of the non-partner track:

Advantages of the non-partner track
These alternative legal careers typically come with limited travel requirements, and their work hours are more standard — closer to 40 hours a week than 80. 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 new business.

Disadvantages of the non-partner track
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 one-quarter to one-half less than 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 total annual compensation will likely ever match their partner-track colleagues’ compensation.

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 today 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.

Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal®, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. The company also offers a full suite of legal staffing and consulting services. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major North American and global markets.

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Question & Answer

December 2014 Issue


I've read that legal professionals need a greater online presence in order to get ahead. I'd love to get more involved with social media as a way to "enhance my brand," but I'm afraid of making mistakes. Any words of wisdom?


I’ve read that legal professionals need a greater online presence in order to get ahead. I’d love to get more involved with social media as a way to “enhance my brand,” but I’m afraid of making mistakes. Any words of wisdom?

It’s true that social media is an excellent tool in many professions, including legal careers. When used well, it can be effective for networking and maximizing your chances of landing a great job. However, ill-advised posts or a neglected online presence can have just the opposite effect. Here are five social media training tips to get you started on the right track.

  1. Choose the right platforms
    You have many social media platforms to choose from, with LinkedIn and Twitter being the most widely used. Closed networks just for legal professionals are also available, such as Foxwordy, LawLink and Legal OnRamp but these are smaller in scale. You also can create a professional profile on Facebook. Start by liking the pages of law firms and legal bloggers that, in your opinion, do a good job of communicating online. Seeing how they interact on a social network can help you find your own voice and personal brand.
  2. Polish your profile
    Whether you use Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, you need to have a first-rate online presence. Make your bio short and attention-catching, and don’t forget to include your legal career background and relevant experience. Your profile photo needs to be appropriate and, ideally, will be a professional headshot. Because anyone can see your profile, share only the information you feel comfortable making public. If you’re a lawyer, you may even want to include a disclaimer stating that whatever you share or post is not a substitute for, nor does it constitute, legal advice.
  3.  Get connected
    Once you’ve created your profile, it’s time to connect with others who have legal careers. Send invitations to co-workers, classmates, former colleagues, friends in other companies (both legal and non-legal) and acquaintances from professional organizations. Social media platforms feature search functions and contact suggestions, so it’s easy to find people to add to your network. Join groups on LinkedIn that are relevant to your work and follow people and organizations on Twitter that you admire.
  4. Keep comments professional
    Comments posted on Twitter, LinkedIn or other social media platforms are clearly much less formal than legal documents. They will, however, be viewed publicly. So be careful to use proper grammar, watch out for typos and other errors, and proofread before posting. Facebook lets users edit a published post, but LinkedIn and Twitter only offer a delete option. To stay professional while social networking, don’t rely on textspeak or emoticons, which can seem too casual or immature.
  5. Maintain social poise
    Watch your digital etiquette. Although social media is more relaxed than other forms of communication, always be polite and professional. Never post negative comments about your present or former employer, and never write anything that would violate the attorney-client privilege. Also avoid sharing images or other content that could be construed as being offensive or in poor taste. If in doubt, leave it out.

Though the online landscape is constantly changing, don’t wait until you have perfect skills before putting your social media training into practice. Once you master some basics, you’re ready to create and craft your personal brand. Social media offers a wealth of networking and job opportunities for people in legal careers, so set up your profiles and start connecting.

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Submit a career-related question to Charles A. Volkert, Esq., executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Charles will answer one question each month!

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