Do you really want to make partner?

March 26, 2012: 1:25 PM ET

The phrase "making partner" doesn't mean what it used to, so why do young employees still shoot for that benchmark?

FORTUNE -- "I just made partner" sure sounds like music to the ears. It's a line many early-career employees at law firms and investment banks aim to say one day.

But making partner doesn't mean what it used to. It hasn't for a while, in fact. And still, many entering the workforce covet that milestone.

Why? There are a couple of reasons, most of them having to do with tradition and pay. And while making partner isn't meaningless, job seekers entering the workforce should question whether it's a solid end-goal.

About 20 years ago, the benefits of making partner at a firm were clear. It meant a pay increase, first of all, and there was a distinction of responsibilities between partners and associates. A partner was one of few shareholders in the company or firm. But these days, "it's harder than ever to become an equity partner," says Robin Sparkman, the editor in chief of the American Lawyer, "it takes longer, and the demands on that lawyer are more stringent."

MORE: Morgan Stanley CEO says no Wall Street brain drain

According to data collected by the American Lawyer, about 78% of all partners at the top 200 law firms (ranked by revenue) were equity partners in 2000. By 2010, 62% of partners at these firms had the same status.

No longer is making partner a golden ticket. In fact, in some cases, it can mean the opposite. Earlier this month, for example, about 20 partners at law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf left en masse after the firm couldn't make good on some of the promised perks of partnership. And, in the world of investment banking, Goldman Sachs (GS) has seen its fair share of partner-level departures in recent months. Arguably, Goldman's culture started to change about a decade ago when it transitioned from a true partnership to a public company.

The model of having a firm with a small group of owners who held equity stakes began to break down over the past couple of decades as financial and legal firms expanded, merged, and globalized. Then the recession hit, and firms simply had less money to give to people. Now, as many are starting to rehire, each defines its internal hierarchy differently. More

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by VIP.