Stuck In The Middle With You

This non-equity partner is crying on the inside.

Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His books — Still Way Worse Than Being A Dentist, Bad Therapist: A Romance, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist, and Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links) — are available on Amazon.

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 oxymoronicness: “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, then 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?

Continue reading over at The People’s Therapist…

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