A friend told me recently that she was considering going to law school. We talked a lot about what it takes to get into a good law school and what classes she might expect to take. At the end of our conversation, she began discussing the different roles she might wish to have if she chose to work in a law office after graduation. I didn’t know that law firms had separate roles for their lawyers, so I asked her to explain: what is an associate in a law firm?
An associate is an entry-level lawyer in a law firm. They have completed their entire course of law school and been granted their law (JD) degree. They’ve also passed the bar exam and been admitted to practice law in that state. Large firms may differentiate between junior and senior associates. Most lawyers remain an associate for six to nine years before ascending to the higher rank of a partner.
What Specific Skills Do Associates Develop?
The associate position is where lawyers will learn how to actually practice the law. Although they’ve already completed law school and passed the bar exam when hired as an associate, these lawyers often have little to no experience actually practicing law in the real world.
One of the most essential skills associates can develop is teamwork, as they’re often working directly with other associates and support staff such as paralegals. They also need to learn how to take direction from and present information to the individual partner who has been assigned to manage them. Associates must be quick on their feet and adapt to constantly changing situations while relaying new information to their managers.
Associates must also become adept at dealing with large amounts of detailed information. Even though they are still supervised, these attorneys will be assigned their own cases that they are expected to thoroughly research and comprehend independently.
Their assignments often require lots of reading and research into precedent, both of which are highly detailed activities. They don’t need to know the law extensively, but they do need to understand how to perform research and find documentation that is relevant to their cases.
How Does an Associate Become a Partner?
Most law firms, especially large ones, use a hierarchical structure for their employees who are attorneys. Lawyers typically enter a firm at the lowest level, the associate. Most lawyers will spend six to nine years as an associate before they are eligible to become a partner at a law firm.
During this time, their performance is constantly under review to ensure they’re not only performing well as a lawyer but that they’re also representing the law firm itself in a positive light. Large firms often have very high billing requirements that require associates to work long hours and perform lots of lower-level work.
Not all associates will become partners, and in fact, some don’t want to become a partner. Being a partner often comes with increased responsibilities and more stress, something that not all lawyers are looking for in their careers. Lawyers who are not interested in joining the partnership are either placed into a non-partner track or, in some cases, asked to resign from the firm.
When considering an associate for a promotion to partner, law firms will review that lawyer’s legal skills, client base, and overall fit with the firm’s culture. Most law firms are looking to advance associates who have been strong team players who have worked hard to bring more clients and thus more profits into the firm.
In small law firms, an attorney may move through the ranks more quickly, and the lines between job responsibilities may be nebulous. Larger firms tend to stick to the traditional hierarchy.
The trajectory for attorneys in a large law firm may look like this:
- Summer associate (before graduating law school)
- Junior associate (first position at a law firm)
- Senior associate
- Managing partner
- Of counsel (typically part-time)
How Much Money Do Associates Make?
The salaries for associates can vary greatly and is dependent on three primary factors:
- Geographical location
- Size of the law firm
- How long they have been an associate.
Law firms in larger cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, typically pay the highest salaries. In part, this is to account for the high cost of living in these locations. Larger firms in these cities will pay the highest amounts, with smaller firms paying less. New associates will start with the lowest salary. This salary is typically increased incrementally each year they work as an associate.
The employment site Indeed reports that the average salary for an associate is $80,473 per year, with first-year associates coming in slightly lower at just $70,570. Associates at highly prestigious law firms have much higher starting salaries and are usually closer to $200,000 per year. Associates can earn bonuses based on their performance and referral bonuses for helping to bring new employees into the firm.
What Type of Law Work Do Associates Perform?
As licensed attorneys, associates can perform any kind of legal work. The most significant factor influencing the types of work they perform is the specialty their law firm focuses on. So if an associate is working for a firm that primarily practices personal injury law, the associate will most likely work on personal injury cases.
As the lowest-ranked lawyers, associates often spend much of their time performing research, reading briefs, and consulting with their supervising partner. Law firms expect them to log long hours and typically have a high number of billable hours. They may also take on more cases and rely on their manager to assign their caseload.
Associates work directly with other administrative staff, especially paralegals and legal assistants. Although they are technically ranked higher than non-lawyer personnel, new associates are often paired with more experienced administrative staff who help them get off to a good start in their law careers. These administrative staff usually have more experience working in the field of law than the new associate attorneys.
What Kind of Work Do Partners Perform?
Large law firms have two kinds of partners: equity and non-equity. Equity partners are shareholders in the firm who have a stake in ownership and a profit share. They usually receive a salary plus additional bonuses that are part of a profit share-out. The head equity partner is called the managing partner and functions as the CEO of the law firm.
Non-equity partners do not have a share in the business and receive a straight salary. They may receive bonuses, but they’re not on a formalized profit-sharing system like the equity partners are. They sometimes have the option to buy into the partnership, but not in every circumstance.
Partners have more experience practicing the law and are often assigned more complicated cases. They may also have developed a specialized focus over the years that is reflected in the cases they are given. These specialties can include criminal defense, international tax law, commercial real estate, or custody disputes.
In addition to managing their own caseloads, partners are also expected to mentor their assigned associates. Associates will report directly to their partner and are often required to run all legal decision-making past them before advising the client directly. Partners also help associates learn how their particular law firm functions and serve as an advocate for their growth over their careers.
What Are the Other Positions at a Law Firm?
Associates are the lowest level full-time lawyers that law firms hire. New lawyers will enter a firm at the associate level, and some will eventually become partners. However, not every associate is destined to become a partner, and some may choose not to move up the chain.
Law firms also use a special kind of attorney who is designated “of counsel.” These lawyers are independent contractors who will work with a law firm to assist with specific issues. They’re typically senior-level attorneys who have significant experience in the practice of law. Most of the counsel lawyers only work part-time and may work with more than one law firm at a time.
Law firms may hire students who are still in law school over the summer break. These are called summer associates and can sometimes be referred to as law clerks. These temporary employees have not yet finished school or passed the bar exam. They cannot work independently, and a licensed attorney must always supervise them.
Large firms may have robust summer associate programs designed to recruit and retain potential future lawyers. These programs often pay pretty well (especially for a summer job) and usually include lots of fun perks and activities. Law schools might offer a permanent associate position to summer associates who perform well, to be taken up after they complete law school.
Outside of the lawyers, law firms also have many different kinds of administrative personnel who assist in the day-to-day operations of running a large business of any kind. Some of these, such as legal assistants or paralegals, may have additional training but are not typically licensed attorneys. Other positions include administrative assistants, accountants, human resources, and IT personnel.