Last week we reviewed the evolution of law firm partnership economics, from the early days of a single-tier, all-equity partnership, to the emergence of a non-equity partner track, to the increasingly complex range of current partnership arrangements. We pointed out that as the economic models of partnership have grown increasingly complex and differentiated, so have the implications for current and potential partners.
This week we’re going to delve into those implications and challenge the traditional assumption that equity partnership is necessarily more attractive than non-equity partnership. On balance, equity partnership is likely still more rewarding in most cases. But for lawyers in certain situations, non-equity arrangements can have strong appeal.
Benefits of equity
Plenty of lawyers still aspire to become equity partners, and for good reason. Equity partnership slots are increasingly scarce, and in a profession that greatly values prestige and status, securing partnership shares is viewed as the pinnacle. The equity partners of a growing and profitable firm can expect to take home an outsized share of the financial rewards. Holding equity also gives a partner a stronger voice in firm governance in the form of voting rights.
Voting rights and partner compensation are often closely connected. For example, one factor that contributes to the equity partnership’s outsized compensation share is origination credit. It is common for firms to structure origination credit formulas to reward equity partners more than their non-equity colleagues. Senior lawyers often pursue equity partner opportunities to receive greater origination credit for their matters. Having input into how the formulas that award origination credit are constructed is an example of the potential value of voting rights.
Downsides of equity
It’s easy to focus on the considerable benefits of becoming an equity partner, but there are also some real downsides that should not be overlooked. Most notably, the boost in status that comes with being named an equity partner is paired with a sizable financial hit in the form of a required capital contribution. This contribution is typically in the range of 25 to 35 percent of annual compensation, but at some firms it can amount to 50 percent or more. Regardless, it’s a lot of money to fork over to the firm, especially for lawyers who are still relatively early in their careers. And getting the capital contribution back may not be so simple. Under the rules of many partnership agreements, the firm is not obligated to return the money until years after an equity partner’s exit. Less significant, but still worth noting: equity partners must pay for their own benefits.
Another factor to consider is that equity partners’ voting rights are diminishing at many firms. Historically, a wide range of decisions—ranging from lateral partnership hires to office lease renewals—required a vote of the full equity partnership. As the size and geographic spread of partnerships has expanded, many firms have determined that it is more practical to delegate most decisions to a small committee or even to the sole discretion of the firm’s Chair. From an efficiency perspective, this is largely a positive development, but one side effect is reduced influence for equity partners who are not in top leadership posts. With respect to an increasingly broad set of issues, these partners are treated more like employees than owners.
When is non-equity best?
Weighing the benefits and downsides, non-equity partnership looks relatively appealing in some scenarios. The opportunity to avoid a substantial capital contribution can be a selling point to both the youngest and oldest partners. At the younger end, partners may not yet have built up enough of an investment portfolio to feel comfortable allocating such a large sum to an illiquid investment in the firm.
At the senior end of the spectrum, a departing equity partner who is contemplating one more short stint at another firm before retirement may be attracted to the simplicity of a non-equity arrangement. Partners in this situation have nothing to prove by again becoming equity partners. They may instead place more value on gaining the flexibility to invest in other ways the capital contribution that their prior firm will return to them. The opportunity to avoid assuming liability for the new firm’s debts is another benefit.
For partners in certain niche practices that do not entail a large standalone book of business, non-equity partnership can also make more sense. Practices such as Tax and Trusts & Estates often function as service providers to other practices in the firm, such that the firm’s origination credit formulas may not greatly reward the partners who specialize in these niche areas. A non-equity partnership arrangement that properly values these partners’ contributions may be the right answer.
A compromise approach: from non-equity to equity
For many partners, the best approach may be to split the difference by pursuing non-equity partnership opportunities that are likely to lead to equity partnership later. This enables the partner to delay the capital contribution hit, while preserving the opportunity to capitalize fully on client relationships as the partner’s book of business expands. Obviously, a partner hoping to go this route must first assess whether the firm offers a real and viable track from non-equity to equity. Where this pathway really does exist, it can offer the best of both worlds.