There’s a new place in biglaw – not always a comfortable place – called the middle. One of its defining characteristics is euphemism, particularly around job titles. Consider yourself lucky if you’re merely saddled with a legal anachronism like “Of Counsel” or “Senior Counsel” or the more workaday “Senior Attorney” (i.e., a lawyer who’s been here a while, which is apparently the best we can say for him), as opposed to that vague moniker creeping into the legal world, borrowed from finance or consulting firms, “Principal.”

The ultimate horror (though somehow preferable as middle titles go) is that now-commonplace epitome of biglaw oxy-moronicness: “non-equity partner.” Every thinking person’s initial objection to this laboratory-experiment-gone-horribly-wrong of a credential, or title, or status, or whatever it is, is that in purely legal terms, it’s nonsense. How can a partner, meaning a member of a partnership, i.e., a fundamental part of an entity defined by shared ownership – not own anything? I’ve run this past tax attorneys (the smartest of all lawyers) and they agreed to a man (and woman): This is more than a quibble – the concept is absurd.

In essence, a non-equity partner is a non-partner partner. If a partner owns nothing in a partnership, it’s not merely that the partnership is non-equitable, it’s that the existence of a non-owning partner in said partnership renders it a non-partnership. The other guys, who own stuff, have a partnership. You, as a non-equity partner, might as well be called “that guy we let work here until we decide differently” (thus, perhaps, was born yet another neologism, the term “de-equitize.”) The phrase “salary partner” only makes things worse, by sweeping less of the evident cognitive dissonance under the rug. Might as well emblazon yourself “Proletarian Viscount” or “Marquis of the living wage.”

In fairness, the whole problem began when someone needed to come up with a word for lawyers who somehow never left their firms, but on the other hand weren’t really getting anywhere, either. There had to be something better to call them than “fourteenth year associate,” which is one of those titles more apt to leave a lawyer gazing into a mirror, his face wet with tears, than crowing with pride at a firm cocktail event.

More importantly, “Fourteenth year associate” sounds bad in front of clients, and let’s face it, the entire issue of concocting these titles for folks in the middle is about appearances, i.e., what outsiders think. No one cares what you think, and everyone knows where you dwell (amid the dark and dreadful middle realm.) Law is like fashion (to paraphrase Heidi Klum): You’re either in, or you’re out (and no, the middle isn’t in, so all the more reason for clever euphemisms.)

Let’s pause for a moment and get all “big picture” about things: What lies behind this phenomenon? Why doesn’t anyone in biglaw just work hard, make “the sprint” for partner, win the big prize and get “elevated” anymore?

The answer is simple, and it’s “big picture” as well: There’s no longer any economic justification for making anyone (at least, any young, not-in-possession-of-a-massive-book-of-business person) equity partner. That’s what senior lawyers have told me, flat out. From a money point of view, if you’re being a “rational economic player,” no one needs to “elevate” anyone to “partner” like they did in the old days. There’s just no reason to bother.

Back then, in the misty years of the 1970’s or 80’s or 90’s or so, “partnership” was like academic tenure. In fact, there was once a time when you could, if you had good grades in law school but didn’t really like law, fairly easily become a law professor. It was looked upon as a sort of noble sacrifice, although in reality the salary was pretty good and you hardly worked (and there was extra time to “consult” on the side for money.) The best part was when you eventually won “tenure,” which meant (or was supposed to mean) they couldn’t fire you.

Partnership, as it used to exist in biglaw, like academic tenure, implied that you were a part of the place – you weren’t going anywhere, you were parked there, more or less, for life, and you were paid like you were a part of the place, too, receiving some variety of “a slice of the pie.” You were stuck with them, sure, but they were stuck with you, too. About the worst they could do was give you a less desirable office or trim your “partnership points,” hoping you’d finally retire. But then, getting on into your dotage and becoming a “partner emeritus” (not really doing anything, just dropping by the firm like you were popping by your club for brandy and a cigar) was half the fun.

In its most exalted incarnation, partnership used to connote a “lockstep” arrangement, meaning everyone bearing the magical title, “partner,” owned a portion of the law firm corresponding solely to his seniority. These partners of yore were colleagues, friends, and co-owners, their fates joined to the fate of the firm and to the fate of one another for the remainder of their lives. When at last you crossed that rainbow bridge to the great book-lined conference room in the sky, your surviving peers gathered to don firm ties and cufflinks for your funeral.

One of my clients actually attended a funeral like that, at a very traditional white-shoe firm (the term “white-shoe” refers to the fact that the lawyers at such firms once wore only tennis sneakers – another much-mourned tradition.) She had to admit, it was an impressive display. On the other hand, she was only there in her capacity as a “senior attorney”- something that didn’t exist way back in the days when snowy white Converse Chuck Taylors were mandatory for firm functions. So, more than anything else, those firm ties and cufflinks and obsequies reminded her that, despite having devoted fifteen years of her life to the firm, she wasn’t truly a member of the club, seated with her colleagues in the pews up front, mourning one of their own. Instead, she was sitting in a back pew – mourning, sure, but also pondering the fact that her hours were down this month, and wondering what that might portend for her bonus, or continued employment. My client is an excellent lawyer, and there’s no doubt she’d have made partner at her firm a couple decades ago (at least, if they made women partners in those days.) But now, as a “senior attorney,” part of her reality involves mulling over an uncertain future.

Of course, at this point in time, lots of things are in flux for law firms, and there’s plenty of uncertain future mulling to go around. Technology is evolving (as you may have heard) with some folks convinced lawyers will be replaced any day now by artificial intelligence. Big firms are swallowing small firms. Radical right-wing politics are ascendant, and the UK is abandoning the EU, meaning London may fade away as a center for global business. Amid a rush to deregulate, the stock market is soaring to teetering heights (at least, as of this afternoon) and the GOP has rewritten the tax code in a hurry, leaving it littered with typos and ambiguities. You name it, it’s changing, and law firms, like lawyers, hate change. They hate taking risks, and hate being the first one to do anything new (that’s why associate salaries are set each year via an extended game of chicken, with each firm waiting for another one to blink before, lemming-like, they all follow.)

The rise of the middle is a relatively new phenomenon in the legal world, and so perhaps it serves as both a sign of all the new change that’s happening, as well as a sort of container for emerging realities firms don’t know what else to do with. It is curious how most of the effects of recent change seem concentrated in the middle. At the old-fashioned edges, the bottom and the top, things don’t look all that different from how they’ve always been.

Down at the bottom, firms still hire as many associates as they can keep busy, and pay them a lot for their age, because it remains profitable to work young lawyers eighty hours per week, and pocket eighty cents on every dollar they bill. That dynamic hasn’t changed because no “rational economic player” lacks an “economic justification” for what amounts to printing money via the exploitation and overwork of lawyers fresh out of law school (who, in any case, are stuck working at law firms because they have to pay off school loans.) That’s a tradition, and gosh darn it, this profession stands by its traditions. (Heck, if there’s an economic slowdown, you can always fire them all.)

Way up at the other, upper end of the spectrum, firms still need rainmakers, the real partners, the guys who bring in business. Those guys earn millions and walk with a swagger, and if there are “masters of the universe” in law, like there are in i-banking and private equity and hedge funds, then these are they. If anything’s changed (perhaps indicative of the wider breakdown of tradition and loyalty and all that outmoded cultural heritage stuff) it’s that rainmakers have become fungible commodities. Now, in the era of “law firm M&A,” headhunters encourage gigantic mega-firms to trade rainmakers like pork bellies, along with their precious “books of business.” Firms are willing to overpay for a big shot rainmaker, even if they know they’re essentially paying him every cent he’ll ever earn under even the most glowing projections, merely to add “luster” to their brand, or “broaden their range of services” or whatever other dodgy rationale they’re willing to employ. The idea is to look like one of the big players in a field increasingly dominated by behemoths, so these big shots are viewed less as actual lawyers than status symbols.

One of my clients was aghast to hear a colleague refer to a rainmaker partner without irony as “a lion in his field.” My client couldn’t resist reminding said colleague that this “lion” had only one role – to bring in work, mostly by schmoozing old lacrosse buddies from his days at Choate. His “cubs” (including my client) were the ones who actually handled all the law, and understood the deals. The “lion” rarely understood so much as the basics of what he billed for, and expended most of his efforts keeping the cubs away from his clients’ decision-makers, just in case the little baby lions started getting crazy ideas about cultivating their own books of business.

So, at the bottom, things are more or less status quo. At the top, ditto. The change is happening in the middle. That’s where things turn all pear-shaped. It’s not so comfortable in the middle.

What’s life like for the lawyers who personify the middle, with their euphemistic titles and perpetually not-quite status?

It involves a lot of “on the one hand/on the other hand”-ing.

On the one hand, you’re making pretty good money.

On the other hand, it’s humiliating to be earning far less than people in your year or junior to you or people frankly doing a lot less than you, and knowing less about the actual law being done.

On the one hand, you could go somewhere else and get a fresh start.

On the other hand, it’s safer to stay put.

On the other hand, is it?

One of my clients was telling me about his current situation as an 8th year associate:

“There’s clearly an elephant in the room – partnership – but no one’s talking about it. I feel like there’s something I’m supposed to be doing, making that sprint for partner, but it all feels false.”

I asked him why.

“Because no one really believes it’s going to happen.”

He explained that making partner at his firm still means “equity partner” and brings a doubling of salary, and the assumption that you will stay at the firm for the rest of your career. And that means it doesn’t really make sense to make anyone partner.

Again, I asked him why.

“Because there’s no pressure to do it. What leverage do I have? The threat that I’m going to leave? Where am I going to go?”

He mulls over his options, as a senior litigation associate, in his mind, over and over again. You know them all, because you’ve probably mulled them over in your mind, as well.

He could go work for the government as a prosecutor. Most of the prestigious jobs are nearly impossible to get, and none of the government jobs pays very well.

He could go in-house somewhere, but that’s tough for a litigator – not many companies bother to keep a stable of in-house litigators. Most of the jobs seem to boil down to “litigation supervisor,” i.e., the guy who works with outside counsel to keep track of all the litigation a company is dealing with at a given point in time – and that sounds quasi-clerical, or at least not especially inspiring.

He could go to another firm, and maybe get appointed “of counsel” (or whatever) with a “look-see” for partnership (probably non-equity) in 2 or 3 years…which more or less amounts to going somewhere else and finding himself precisely where he was.

Even if he did corporate work instead of litigation, it wouldn’t necessarily be a simple thing to go elsewhere. There might be more in-house opportunities, but he’d face the problem of having stayed at the firm too long – he’s no longer a super-marketable 4th year receiving calls from headhunters every day, he’s a senior lawyer, who might be highly specialized by now or, alternatively, kind of expensive and hard to place. And if he were finally “elevated” to “non-equity partner” at his firm, then he’d face the inevitable question from a potential employer: “You’ve just made partner – why would you want to leave now?”

So he stays. And, sure, part of him wants to give it all up, move to L.A. and take his shot at being a screenwriter…but he has a wife and kid, so it’s pretty well understood he has to stay on earning some sort of “lawyer money” at least for the time being. And at some point it will start to sound weird to say “fourteenth year associate” and so he’ll probably be granted a euphemistic title defined by its very middle-ish-ness. Senior Attorney. Non-equity Partner. Special Counsel. Whatever. And then he’ll stay some more – at least, unless they don’t grant him a goofy title and a place in the middle, in which case he isn’t sure what he’ll do – or until they lay him off despite his goofy middle title, in which case he isn’t sure what he’ll do either.

Which sort-of means the middle sounds pretty good right now, or at least, like a safe place to park himself for the time being, which sort of means the same thing.

On the one hand, heck, who’s complaining? The money’s fine – the same salary you’ve been earning, which is okay. And you don’t have to run around pretending you’re “bringing in business” because at this point, if you’re like my client, you’ve already concluded (realistically, he thinks) that “bringing in business” in a market this competitive is essentially impossible, unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth and happened to bond with a future Dark Lord of private equity over keggers at Dartmouth. For most folks in the middle, the money issue boils down to earning a lot less than what a real partner earns, but, as one of my middle clients reminds me, that’s still a lot more than most people make. At least you’re still there, still have a job. You haven’t crashed and burned and fallen by the wayside like so many other associates in your class who couldn’t hack it and fled in terror for who knows what.

On the other hand, being a partner who isn’t a partner does create some financial issues for middle-dwellers. I’ve heard non-equity partners complain they wind up getting paid less than senior associates, since they face the expenses of partnership (paying for your own benefits, having the firm withhold various taxes and who-knows-whatsits) but none of the benefits of real partnership (i.e., real profit-sharing.) They don’t even receive the raises associates get, since they’re (theoretically) not associates anymore.

And yet.

On the one hand, a big problem in the middle is the sense that, with everything changing around you, there isn’t much stability, or safety. There isn’t much sense that you’ll still be there in a few years, especially if, in a few years, things get tight, business slows down and the firm is looking to save money. When things get slow, the partners will hog the work, and associates are cheap and fungible and attrit from exhaustion and burnout anyway. But middle folks are both expensive and dispensable. In a downturn, it’s a fair guess the of counsels and senior attorneys and others of their ilk will be the ones politely shown the door. That’s not a fun scenario to contemplate.

On the other hand, it’s not like anything else in law is particularly stable nowadays. In the post-Dewey LeBoeuf world, as firms buy and sell partners and practice groups, and expand into every nation on the globe, maybe it’s best to let go, mumble your serenity prayer, and enjoy having a job. Even the old-fashioned “lockstep” partnerships are hiring special counsels and of counsels and senior counsels and all the rest, simply because business is booming and they need warm bodies (senior bodies, not-too-expensive bodies) to do the work. The only way to preserve the fiction of “lockstep” as a “rational economic player” is to stop making real partners and fill your ranks with non-equity euphemisms. And if things continue, the middle can only grow. You might be stuck there, but you’re hardly alone.

The “middle” could even be spun as the new normal, representing nothing more than a novel paradigm, in which law firms stop being partnerships, and morph into traditionally structured corporations like banks and tech firms. Instead of associates and partners, a standard tiered ladder could evolve, with all those familiar, if vaguely absurd, titles stacked one atop the other – analyst/associate/vice president/director/senior director/executive director/managing director/master of the universe. And maybe, in our rapidly changing legal world, that new model makes sense. After all, why should every associate be paid the same salary? It’s clear some associates are better than others, and law firm bonuses, even when they’re distributed on a preferential basis to reward merit, are still too small to make up the difference. Why not let the talented rise quickly through the ranks, while the less talented, instead of getting pushed out through atrociously high rates of attrition, merely settle at the bottom, doing the work they can handle, and perhaps prefer? Maybe that system is inevitable – and it might be coming.

The rise of the biglaw middle might also reflect a change in the entire law firm market itself, a squeeze of sorts that’s affecting all law firms, big and small. At the bottom of that spectrum, there are solo practitioners and small firms doing their thing – taking on smaller clients, not charging much, getting by. And at the top, there are the mega-firms, handling work for the Fortune 500 companies and gobbling up whatever else they can get their hands on. But in the middle, the ranks are thinning. I’ve heard lawyers predict law will go the way of accounting – there will be no more mid-law. Instead, we’ll wind up with a “Big Six” (or eight, or twelve) gigantic, international law conglomerates – super mega-firms that handle everything too big for the little guys. This dynamic is already playing out to some degree, as demonstrated by the fact that most mid-law firms feel like aspiring biglaw firms – working their associates into the ground, fighting like tigers to pull in the biggest clients they can, promising the moon, discounting fees, anything it takes, even if that giant case or deal they manage to bring in threatens to overwhelm the resources of the firm. It’s worth it to them to take any work they can get at any cost, because no one wants to get stuck in the middle. And, of course, plenty of mid-law firms wind up gobbled up by larger firms in any event.

You can take a quasi-Marxist perspective on all this change, and view the expanding middle as little more than evidence that there’s less room at the top. The entire “stuck in the middle” problem might reflect a broader on-going collapse of the middle class. In this scenario, an unimaginably wealthy 1% sits at the top, ruling over a vast, powerless, debt-crippled pool at the bottom, while a shrinking middle class slides downward like a lump of viscous goo, grateful to settle for the time being, however precariously, somewhere above the great unwashed.

On the one hand, if you accept that model, it’s clear there’s not much room left at the top, and that’s frustrating and unfair and demotivating.

On the other hand, at least being in the middle of that model means you haven’t sunken all the way to the bottom – at least, not yet. They may have tossed you off the cliff…but you managed to grab hold of a tree branch and cling for dear life (viscous lump of goo that you are) halfway down.

Framing the whole “middle” phenomenon in class terms raises the awkward issue of prestige in the relentlessly hierarchical world of law firms. One client told me the worst part of life in the middle – as a “special counsel whatever” – is not the senior rainmaker partners, who treat you the same as ever (essentially give you work, then ignore you.) It’s the younger equity partners who make him grit his teeth.

“Having some twit a few years younger than me tell me to come to his office so he can give me an assignment – that’s when I have to close my eyes and count to ten,” my client fumed. “On the other hand, I don’t have to go out and deal with clients like he does, and I’m paid decently, less than half of what they make, but I can’t really complain.” He hesitated, then added, “Oh, and, at least for the time being, I have a job. I suppose that’s something, too.”

Another middle client told me she was invited to a junior associate’s wedding, and found herself seated at the “kiddie table” with all the associates who’d been invited from her firm. Across the dance floor, she could see the “grown ups table” where the partners in attendance were seated. Yeah, that was awkward. On the other hand, as she put it, sitting as the lone middle-dweller at the partner table might have been worse. There was no “middle table” – not yet, at least.

Perhaps it’s a mercy that, as the law firm middle becomes a fact of life, a certain matter-of-factness has crept into these sorts of awkward interactions. A client who recently didn’t make partner – or anything else – at his biglaw firm told me he was surprised, once the rush of anger and humiliation burned off, how casually friendly, in fact, sort of nice, the senior partners were as they delivered the bad news. Even as they cast him into the ignoble middle, they offered him a decent raise and a bonus check.

“You can stay as long as you like,” one partner assured him, and seemed to mean it. “It’s just that, at some point, staying here too long will probably wind up stunting your career.”

On the one hand…on the other hand.

My client realized, at some point, that his firm’s long term plan was to place him in-house with one of their clients.

“That’s how they generate business for themselves,” he explained. “Once I’m there, in a new job, presumably I’ll feel grateful, and use my old firm as outside counsel.”

The thought of taking one of those in-house jobs leaves my client contemplating the same old on the one hand/on the other hand balancing test:

On the one hand, he likes the money and the work at his current job, so he’s determined to stay at least until the next bonus is paid and maybe save up a down payment for an apartment.

On the other hand, maybe going in-house wouldn’t be so bad, money- or work-wise, and it might be getting about time to leave. Already he kids around about sticking around too long and starting to “go off.”

“They can smell it on me, the stench. I’m past my prime. It grows a bit stronger with each passing month,” he jested.

And then he said something else: “Part of me wishes they’d at least given me the title, made me partner, even if it was only non-equity partner. I’d rather have anything besides associate on my resume when I go out on interviews.”

I couldn’t miss the irony. “Making partner” used to represent something akin to achieving adulthood – you became a grown up, a permanent feature at your firm, literally one of the owners. Nowadays, lawyers tell me they aspire to make partner – meaning “non-equity partner” – mostly so they can leave.

Recently, a client told me about a mid-sized firm where a friend of hers works. At this place, they make everyone partner – non-equity partner – after about eight years. So, if you’re still there and practicing law – voila! – you’re a partner, at least in the euphemistic, surreal sense of the term. The catch is that making equity partner, real partner, is quite a bit tougher. The rule is you have to originate $1.5 million in billables per year – your “book of business” – and abracadabra! – you’re an equity partner.

“I don’t really get it,” my client said. “If you’ve managed to build a $1.5 million book of business, you might as well go somewhere else, and see what they’ll pay you for it. Why stay put and take whatever the other equity partners decide to shell out, when you’re earning the money?”

She had a point.

Being made partner isn’t about becoming a lasting part of a law firm anymore. It’s evolved into one more credential on your resume that might help you escape the middle and head off to seek a distant mountaintop, or hilltop, or perhaps simply an island amid the rising floodwaters. Someplace you can pause, and rest. Maybe someplace you can call your own.

Because that’s really the big problem with the middle – the reason it’s so uncomfortable. Wedged between the bottom dwellers, who possess nothing, and the top elite, who possess everything, there’s the nagging sense you should have something of your own, maybe even the vague feeling that you do possess some ownership stake in something, somehow…except it’s smoke and mirrors, like that defining absurdity of middle-dom itself, “non-equity partner,” an Escher drawing of a title that gives and takes away in the same breath, leaving you feeling like you’re in possession of something, yet holding nothing at the same time.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.

Please check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession: Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning

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My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

I’ve also written a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space. I guarantee pure reading pleasure: Bad Therapist: A Romance