Moving to the Head of the Class

January 23, 2004

Law firm leaders scan local talent pool for new partners
Amid the fanfare of year-end elections, with the general public focused on who will run the government for years to come, Long Island law firms prepared for elections of their own – private ballots in which firms’ senior attorneys determine new partners.

Among the results: Rivkin Radler in Uniondale, with more than 100 attorneys on the Island, had seven new partners start in 2004, not surprisingly more than any of the Island’s larger firms; Cullen and Dykman Bleakly Platt, with offices in Garden City, named three new partners in December and added a fourth from another firm; Farrell Fritz named three; and Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman named two over the past year.

Overall, local experts say the class of new partners, even including some hired from other firms, was smaller this year. Some say it’s because firms seem to be requiring more seniority from attorneys.

“I believe there has been a climb of the number of years out of law school firms are looking at to make partners,” said Robert Wild, managing partner at Garfunkel Wild & Travis in Great Neck. “That trend of requiring more seniority I’ve seen in the larger firms. That’s the marketplace.”

Lawyers typically work for nearly a decade before making partner on Long Island, but there’s no golden rule.

“At a regional or midsize firm, there is a less defined system than there might be at a larger firm in Manhattan,” said Charles Strain, managing partner at Farrell Fritz in Uniondale. “We, over a period of time, have made someone a partner at the firm almost every year for the last five to 10 years.”

Steven Schlesinger, managing partner at Jaspan Schlesinger Hoffman, also said Long Island firms try to be flexible. A track pegged on a time table, he said, is more often the case in New York City and at the biggest law firms.

“I don’t think that’s as true on the Island as in the city,” he said. “It’s becoming a meritocracy. Could a superstar do it in five or six and could someone grind it out in 10? The answer’s yes to both.”

Other firms said that it’s just not possible to come up with a formula or simple path to become partner.

“We are not that structured,” said Kenneth Berkman, a partner at Berkman, Henoch, Peterson & Peddy in Garden City. “We don’t have anything that says eight or five or four. It really depends on the circumstances. We play it much more by ear.”

While most big firms at least consider partners each year, some sat out the ritual this year.

Take Nixon Peabody, in Garden City, for example. “Economic factors may have played a small role, but it’s individual-specific,” said Partner Allan Cohen.

Siben & Siben, among the top five firms with 65 Long Island attorneys, remains family-owned with only four partners. “Historically, attorneys come to work for Siben & Siben for three to four or five years,” said Andrew Siben, a partner at the firm in Bay Shore. “They’d get a very broad education here. But invariably, lawyers would move on.”

He said since associates can increase their income by increasing their business, they sometimes choose to stay on. “We now have people staying here,” Siben said. “We have a very good relationship with our associates. They can maintain their own practice.”

Melville-based Lewis Johs, Avallone, Aviles & Kaufman also did not name any new partners.

largely behind closed doors, many noted the process begins well before a vote.

“They come in and they initiate a discussion,” said Schlesinger, who meets with each practice group. “Then we try to forge consensus informally among partners.”

Strain said Farrell Fritz looks at people all year long “as part of the normal management process” rather than getting caught in an end-of-the-year crunch. The firm named three partners over the past year.

While some of them initially don’t get a stake in the firm, they’re expected to obtain one as they rise. That means each new name on the partner list (typically on stationery) dilutes or is expected to dilute the equity of remaining partners.

“The flip side is that in the cycle of law firms there generally is an appropriate mix of ages,” said Strain. “And some are starting to retire.”

While rainmakers are the fastest to rise, as a rule, you don’t need to bring in business to reach the rank of partner, firms said.

“A rainmaker is a much easier sell to become a member of the firm as an equity partner,” said Schlesinger. “But a superstar lawyer who can produce exemplary service to clients is a necessary component of any firm. A significant number of our partners are just very good lawyers.”

Strain agreed, adding that bringing in business is only one of many factors that contribute to a lawyer’s being asked to be a partner. “The single-most important factor is the quality of the legal work and client service,” he said.

And while being named partner has big benefits, new partners note there can be a downside, too, such as less camaraderie with associates. “You have more of a sense of responsibility,” said Andrew Mahony who was named partner at Jaspan Schlesinger late last year. “[You’re more involved with] the finances of the firm, day-to-day operations, personnel decisions.”

“It definitely feels different being a partner,” said Robert Litt, a new partner at Jaspan Schlesinger. “You have to learn to become partner. It’s not one day you’re an associate, the next day you’re a partner. You have to grow into the position.”

This article is reprinted with permission from the January 23, 2004 edition of Long Island Business News.

View the PDF

  • Featured Attorneys: Charles M. Strain
  • Publications: Long Island Business News