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Aiming for the Top
It’s tougher to make partner—it takes strategy, connections, and maybe some luck. And remaining one isn’t so easy, either. By Marisa M. Kashino
Comments () | Published December 1, 2009
Jonice Gray Tucker didn’t follow the traditional path to partnership. Photograph by Vincent Ricardel

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Jonice Gray Tucker sits in the Fairmont hotel’s courtyard. She’s not far from the law firm next door where she recently made partner. Dressed in a camel-colored pantsuit with her hair pulled off her makeup-free face, she’s calm and confident as she talks about her career.

Life is good in this serene spot, tucked away in the District’s prosperous West End, but getting here wasn’t easy.

The Washington native graduated from Yale Law in 2000, landed a clerkship on Maryland’s federal court, and joined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom—the highest-grossing and maybe hardest-working law firm in the country—as an associate in 2001. She has billed tens of thousands of hours to clients, no doubt hundreds of which she would have rather spent with her two small children. Yet Tucker doesn’t hesitate when asked why making partner was worth the toil.

“To be a part of the decision-making process—not just from a standpoint of case strategy, client contact, and that sort of thing but from a policymaking standpoint internally—mattered to me.”

In other words, Tucker wants to operate like an owner of her firm. It’s the answer that partners across the region tend to give when they’re asked the same question.

Their responses begin to vary when they describe how a lawyer actually goes about making partner in an increasingly competitive business. Making partner is no longer a matter of sacrificing any semblance of a social life to grind through grunt work for seven or eight years. It takes strategy, self-promotion, connections, and—maybe most important during a year when several established law firms dissolved—luck.

Today there’s no simple formula for making partner, or remaining one. And for a bunch of über-competitive young lawyers with Ivy League diplomas on their walls, it can be frightening.

Tucker herself didn’t follow a traditional path. Sure, she spent the requisite eight years as an associate at a major law firm, though that’s not where she practices today. Rather than wait around for her number to come up at Skadden—which made just eight new partners in 2009, compared with 25 in 2008—Tucker left in March to follow partners Andrew Sandler and Benjamin Klubes to the 66-lawyer, DC-based financial-services law firm BuckleySandler. It’s a different world from Skadden, which has nearly 2,000 lawyers across 24 offices. At the new firm, Tucker became a partner.

“It did become important to me to have some prospect of advancing on what I consider to be a reasonable schedule,” says Tucker, who declines to speak specifically about her experience at Skadden. “I felt like it would be a much longer path at a significantly larger law firm.”

Skadden declined to comment for this story, though it’s by no means the only firm with a partnership that appears to be growing more exclusive. Several of Washington’s top-grossing firms slashed the sizes of their new-partner classes this year.

There is, of course, a fate worse than being denied entrance to the partnership: “We get calls pretty much on a daily basis from associates with elite credentials who would otherwise be very well situated to make partner at their firm,” says Washington legal recruiter Abe Pollack. “Now these folks are fighting just to maintain their job security.”

Thousands of lawyers, including many who thought they were on the track to partnership, lost that fight as firms cut people to survive the financial downturn.

One lawyer, in his eighth year of practice when he was laid off by a large DC law office, says he felt he had “a good path” going forward: “I’ve always felt like there are two different people who make partner, one being the rainmaker, the other being the worker bee, the good client-service partner. I was always shooting for that second guy.”

Yet the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says there wasn’t enough work at his former firm even to feed the partners overseeing him. Consequently, the client matters on his desk were shuffled off to more senior lawyers, making him expendable.

He has since landed at a smaller firm, where he remains an associate. He says making partner is no longer a goal. The lawyer is precisely the kind Pollack is talking about when he says, “A number of folks will miss their window. That’s the reality.” 

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 12/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles