Associates have long lamented the lack of promotion opportunities in Biglaw. For those associates at the top firms in the nation, where usually fewer than 10%—and sometimes only 3%—of attorneys get promoted to partner, the lament is justified.
Yet, promotion rates actually vary widely across AmLaw 100 firms. Around half of AmLaw 100 firms promote more than 25% of their associates to partner and some promote more than half of their associates to partner.
Expected promotion rate of an AmLaw 100 associate
Many of the firms promoting associates at high rates are those with relatively low profits per partner (PPP). Wealthier firms tend not to promote as much, since attaining high profits per partner usually requires a firm to keep its partnership small and leverage high (i.e. to bill out as many associates and counsel as possible per partner). Still, even some of the wealthiest firms in the country have promotion rates north of 20%, well ahead of their peers. In every tier, there are better and worse firms for an associate looking to make partner.
Calculating Promotion Rates
Using the data we collect on law firms, we calculated the promotion rates at every Am Law 100 firm. We introduce what we call an “expected promotion rate.” Instead of looking at how many associates were promoted to partner in recent years (which fluctuates year to year and doesn’t tell you the percentage of the original class that was promoted) we looked at firms’ current breakdown of associates, counsel and partners to measure the likelihood of an associate joining a firm today eventually making partner.*
To demonstrate, the chart below shows the breakdown of associates, counsel and partners at all AmLaw 100 firms on Jan 1, 2019 for every class year from 2017 to 2002 (we won’t see full data on the class of 2018 until later in the year). On the far left of the chart, we can see that there are 4,387 associates at AmLaw 100 firms in the class of 2017. In each subsequent class year there are fewer associates, as members of the class leave or get promoted. In the class of 2002 on the far right, there are 82 associates, 326 counsel, and 1017 partners.
To calculate the expected promotion rate, we take the average number of partners in the classes of 2002-2006 (to account for outliers in any given year and because firms have largely promoted all the associates in those classes that it will promote) and divide them by the number of associates in a firm’s peak associate class year.
Overall, the expected promotion rate for the entire AmLaw 100 is 23.6% (4,387 associates in the class of 2017 divided by the average number of partners from 2002-2006: 1,034). This means that, all things being equal, an associate at an AmLaw 100 firm in the class of 2017 has a 23.6% chance of being made partner (and remaining partner) at an AmLaw 100 firm 11-15 years later.*
We did a similar promotion calculation for each AmLaw 100 firm, although we used the average of the firm’s three largest associate class years rather than its peak year to account for outliers.
AmLaw 100 firms with the highest promotion rates, by tier
Below are the top-10 firms by promotion rate in three different firm tiers: The top 25, top 26-50 and top 51-100 by PPP. By dividing them this way, we can see the top performers in each tier, despite the fact that wealthier firms tend to promote less than less wealthy firms.
We don’t show firms outside the top-10, since firms are sensitive about their promotion rates being publicly available. However, lawyers and law students can sign up on Laterally to download the full report, which includes promotion rates at all AmLaw 100 firms (once you enter your information, the download link will appear).
Top-10 among the Top 25 AmLaw 100 firms (by PPP)
Firms in this top tier had profits per partner last year of $2.4 million and above. Here are the ten with the highest promotion rates:
For reasons discussed above, despite outperforming their peers, all but one of these prestigious firms (Boies Schiller at #15) were in the bottom half of the AmLaw 100 in terms of promotion rate.
Yet, with promotion rates from 13% to 42%, they significantly outperformed other wealthy firms. At the bottom of this tier, several firms have promotion rates of just 3% or 4%. The firm with the lowest expected promotion rate has a lawyer breakdown that looks a lot different, with large classes of associates narrowing into tiny partner classes:
Top-10 among the Top 26-50 AmLaw 100 firms (by PPP)
Firms in the top 26-50 had profits per partner between $1.6 and $2.4 million. The following ten had the highest promotion rates of this tier:
With expected promotion rates of 20% to 45%, these firms did significantly better than those firms at the bottom of this tier, where several firms had promotion rates of 9%.
Top-10 Among the 51-100 AmLaw 100 firms (by PPP)
The ten firms with the ten highest promotion rates overall all came from the bottom 50 of the AmLaw 100. They are:
The vast majority of firms in this tier have promotion rates of 20% and above, with only a few outliers in single digits.
What it means for associates
The fact that many of the top firms in the country promote such a small percentage of associates is not stunning news. Top associates have always clustered at prestigious firms out of law school, then moved on to firms where they have a real shot at making partner. (If you haven’t yet, check out Laterally’s Move Tracker to see what moves previous associates have made).
When it comes time to make that move, however, associates would be well served to understand which firms best enable them to reach their career goals. The data on promotion rates above is a useful starting point. However, it is important to consider several factors:
1) Past promotion rates do not guarantee future promotion rates. A firm might pull up the ladder or expand promotion opportunities in subsequent years. Any number of events could change a firm’s course, including growth or slowdown in the business, a larger net loss or gain of partners through lateral moves than in past years, or a change in the rate at which senior partners retire.
2) Promotion rates for lateral vs. homegrown associates may also differ. Some firms may show a preference for homegrown talent. Others prefer associates from other (sometimes more prestigious) firms. Understanding this requires a detailed study of its past behavior.
3) The promotion data above offers a broad snapshot of a firm. Specific offices and practice groups at each firm can have very different structures and promotion rates. It is important when considering a lateral move to know the breakdown of the specific group you would be joining, its history of promotion, and its future plans.
When making a lateral move as part of a plan to stay at a firm long term, associates need objective data as well as guidance from experienced consultants. Providing this to associates is how we have built Laterally. Get started by signing up on Laterally.com.
Laterally is the leading recruiting platform for the nation’s top lawyers, combining the best of traditional recruiting with a data-centric approach to advising candidates. To inquire about this research or to speak with a consultant about a job move, sign up on Laterally.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
*note that it would also be useful to calculate the actual promotion rates of each class from when they entered to when they got promoted, but our data does not go back the 10-15 years we would need.
**The expected promotion rate assumes that partners join or leave the firm at the same rate they have in the past, and that the firm’s business and goals remain steady. It also does not account for lateral hires of junior partners that substitute for homegrown promotions, a fact we will address in future research.