The Ladder within a Law Firm

This article was first published in the Lex Witness June 2016 issue.

The concept of running any business is based on role hierarchy. Strategies and inputs flow top-down, with inputs from middle management, and implemented across the various strata of the workforce.

Running a law firm is not very much different either. Although there are various structures a law firm can follow, traditionally there are a few roles and designations that are consistent across firms irrespective of the geography.

The Hierarchy

Following are some of the key roles, along with their responsibilities and the positioning in the hierarchical chain:

Founding Partners – the person(s) responsible for the inception of the firm. S/he has set up the firm, and provided an identity to the firm including the name and logo. Although these elements can be changed over time, the Founding Partner(s) will always remain a driving force in the firm’s direction for as long as they survive.

Managing Partners – the person(s) responsible for the efficient running of the firm. S/he focuses on the business and strategic decisions for the daily running of the firm, keeping in perspective the long term growth plans and goals. Usually this is an elected position in a firm for a particular timeframe, voted upon by the key decision makers, stakeholders and Senior Partners of the firm. However in certain cases, the Founding Partner may himself choose to step into the role of the Managing Partner, or appoint someone without a democratic election process.

Senior Partners – the person(s) who have been with the firm for a number of years and/or is a senior lawyer in terms of years of practice and reputation. The Senior Partners are undeniably the advisors of the firm the Founding and the Managing Partners rely on for critical business decisions. Usually Senior Partners along with the Founding and Managing Partners have a profit sharing arrangement as a part of their compensation package, and hence by default are stakeholders of the firm.

Equity Partners – the person(s) who are usually rainmakers and/or practice heads at the firm. The Equity Partners may not be the most senior in terms of number of years of experience or their tenure at the firm. However, their book value and reputation supersedes everything, and hence they become stakeholders at the firm with a suitable profit sharing element worked into their compensation package. Equity Partners usually wield quite a bit of say in the decision making process within the firm.

Salaried Partners – the person(s) who are star performers at the firm and are usually on an Equity Partner track. Salaried Partners may be new hires and/or long term retainers by the firm. Their influence within the firm decisions usually depend on the social and professional rapport they share with the other stakeholders of the firm.

C-Level Executives – the person(s), who are usually non-lawyers but senior professionals with expertise in their relevant fields are appointed as the C-level executives at the firm to ensure optimal efficiency the relevant departments/functions. The positions may include those of Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, Head – Human Resource and so on. Their involvement and decision making powers are good, however restricted to their respective practice arms only.

Associates – person(s) exclusively retained by the firm for their services. Associates traditionally do not influence decision making at the firm.

Law Clerks and Paralegals – these positions are held by professionals with different background and educational qualification in difference jurisdictions. In the western part of the world, these positions are usually held by law students and/or highly educated professionals with degrees in relevant subjects. These professionals are not lawyers (as yet). Regardless, they do legal research, quasi-legal work and various firms even include rates for the work done by their clerks and paralegals in their client billing. However in India, these positions are not considered as important and are not usually held by specialized professionals. The concept of experience via practice is usually synonymous for professionals in these positions in India.

Play The Ladder

So when working within a law firm or dealing with various strata of professionals within the law firm, it is important to understand the influence the role and especially the person holds within the firm. A law firm’s functioning is as much dependant on its internal team mechanisms and politicking, as it is contingent on the amount revenue it generates.

Happy Networking!

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