Some of Pennsylvania’s largest firms granted partner status to their largest cohorts of lawyers in recent history this year in another bid to retain talent by offering a clear path to partnership.
Morgan Lewis & Bockius, Dechert and Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, among others, promoted significantly more lawyers to their partnerships this fall than in prior years. This follows suit with a number of firms in the Am Law 50 that promoted record-breaking classes, including McDermott Will & Emery, Kirkland & Ellis and Goodwin Procter.
“It’s a matter of demonstrating there is greater opportunity for joining the partnership than was believed in the past,” legal consultant Brad Hildebrandt said. “It’s about giving them more of an opportunity so [firms] can keep them, and letting people know there are opportunities maybe sooner than expected.”
Joshua Peck, of Peck Legal Communications, said large partnership promotions supplement other talent war efforts by Big Law firms, like salary hikes and generous lifestyle accommodations.
“Firms also need to make sure that senior associates eyeing partnership can believe they’ll really get it. They will go elsewhere if it doesn’t come when they expect it,” Peck said. “It is clear that some firms are easing the path to partnership, elevating associates who might have waited another year or two, if not for the competition knocking at the door.”
Dechert said on Dec. 3 that 31 lawyers will be promoted to the firm’s global partnership on Jan. 1, in what firm leaders identified as the largest new partner class in “recent firm history.” For comparison, in 2020, the global law firm named 13 lawyers to the partnership.
“This year’s partner class was the deepest and broadest group of extremely talented people up for consideration in my ten years as chairman,” Andy Levander, chair of the firm’s policy committee, said in a statement. He noted the class represents 11 different offices in six countries and six practice groups.
Dechert CEO Henry Nassau said in a statement that the size of the new class is a “testament” to the firm’s success in growing key practice areas and geographies.
Morgan Lewis promoted more lawyers to the firm’s global partnership than any class in recent history, with 40 new partners effective Oct. 1, a firm spokesperson confirmed. That’s 15 more than in 2020. However, the spokesperson said, the spike reflects the global firm’s growth from recent years, paired with increasing demand, rather than an effort to retain more lawyers.
“These new partners were established as leaders early in their careers and were identified even before the pandemic,” the firm said in a statement. “During these unprecedented times, they continued to demonstrate exceptional client service and great firm citizenship.”
Faegre Drinker named 28 lawyers to the firm’s partnership, compared to 17 promoted last time around. The firm announced the promotions Dec. 6, which become effective Jan. 1. Firm leaders said the promotions are an “important building block for the firm’s future.”
“This year’s partnership class represents our focus on developing top talent, advancing diversity and inclusion and providing clients with the best and brightest,” firm co-chairs Tom Froehle and Andrew Kassner said in a joint statement.
At Pennsylvania-born Am Law 200 firms outside the top 50, partner classes weren’t as historic.
Philadelphia-based Blank Rome promoted 11 new partners from a cohort of six associates and five of counsel attorneys, effective Jan. 1. In addition, one lawyer, who previously practiced as an associate, was promoted to an of counsel role. The total number of promotions is down from last year’s, when firm leaders promoted 11 associates to partner, two of counsel to partner and five associates to of counsel roles.
Pittsburgh-based Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney promoted 20 attorneys: nine to shareholder status, 10 to counsel and one to senior attorney, the Pittsburgh-based firm announced Wednesday, effective Feb. 1. This year’s promotions to shareholder status are down one lawyer from the 10 promoted last year, although there are six more who were named counsel than the four included in last year’s promotions.
Hildebrandt added that many of the Big Law promotions have been to the nonequity tier. This allows firms to avoid devaluing their profits per equity partner while cementing relationships with up-and-coming lawyers, he said.
According to a study Hildebrandt authored with Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group, equity partner head count was flat in the first nine months of 2021, and income partner head count grew 2.5%. In the first nine months of 2021, 43% of firms have seen a contraction in equity partner head count, but 51% have seen growth, according to the study.
The report said these dynamics indicate an active lateral market and record-high partner promotions at a growing number of firms.
Hildebrandt said current competitive market circumstances mirror those of the late 1980s, when the five-year attrition rate for large law firms was 85%, as young lawyers were poached by investment banks. In today’s competitive market for talent, he said, young lawyers are being targeted by emerging companies in the tech industry.