Law Firm Partner vs. Associate: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 8, 2022 | Published September 15, 2021

Updated July 8, 2022

Published September 15, 2021

A partner and an associate are two key professionals in the law industry. While partners and associates are both lawyers, the two positions can differ in a few ways. If you're interested in pursuing a law career, it can be helpful to know the important differences between these two roles.

In this article, we review what a law firm partner is and what a law firm associate is, and we explore the key differences between the two roles.

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What is a law firm partner?

A law firm partner is a lawyer who maintains partial ownership of the firm where they work. Partners in a law firm can have the same duties as many other types of lawyers, such as meeting with clients and arguing cases in court. However, they also usually have additional responsibilities, such as hiring new associates and overseeing associates while they work on cases. Most law firms have a group of partners that can grow as more lawyers at the firm gain experience and receive promotions.

There are also sometimes different levels of partnership. For example, a managing partner is an exceptionally qualified attorney who holds the highest level of authority in a firm, often adding their name to the firm's name.

Related: 10 Jobs You Can Find in Law Offices

What is a law firm associate?

An associate at a law firm is a lawyer who's new to the industry. This can mean that associates often have fewer years of experience than other lawyers. However, associates are essential to a law firm's function, as they usually take on a high number of cases and have many responsibilities. For example, an associate can collaborate with paralegals to organize evidence to use in arguments and host depositions to interview clients and witnesses. Associates typically report directly to a partner or a managing partner at a firm who can provide them with case assignments and feedback on their performance.

Related: 10 Different Law Firm Positions and What They Do

Law firm partner vs. associate

Here are a few differences between a law firm partner and an associate:

Seniority

Perhaps the clearest difference between a law firm partner and an associate is the level of seniority each position typically holds. This is because a law firm partner has some degree of ownership of the firm where they work, which places them in a high position in the company's hierarchy. A partner can use their seniority to offer advice to lower-level associates, engage in problem-solving and decision making for the firm and supervise associates while they prepare and argue cases.

In contrast, an associate usually has a lower-level position in a law firm. While they can still hold more authority than some administrative positions, such as receptionists or paralegals, associates are often low in a firm's hierarchy because of their minimal levels of expertise. Associates typically report to superiors throughout the workday and often have to refer to their supervisors for new assignments and performance evaluations.

Experience level

In a similar way to how associates and partners can differ in seniority, they can also differ in experience level. This refers to the number of years each type of professional usually spends in the industry before securing their job title. For example, a partner at a law firm often has extensive experience with many years of working in the industry before they reach the position of partner. Partners also can have specialized knowledge in different areas of the law that comes from trying different types of cases, such as particular expertise in custody law or criminal defense.

For an associate, employers typically expect them to have minimal or no experience in the law when they apply for a position. This is because an associate lawyer is an entry-level job where candidates can develop their law skills and expertise through practical experience. Due to their lower experience level, associates can sometimes spend long hours preparing cases and learning how to argue different legal issues.

Related: Working at a Law Firm: Pros and Cons, Environment and Types of Law

Salary

Another way that a law firm partner and an associate can differ is the salary that each position typically earns. For example, the national average salary for a law partner is currently $136,113 per year. This is exceptionally high for a base salary, which might result from the high level of expertise that a law partner typically has.

For an associate attorney, the base salary is often lower than what a partner earns. Currently, the national average salary for associate attorneys in the U.S. is $79,233 per year. While this is still a competitive salary, associates usually earn less than partners because they often have fewer years of experience and less expertise in the various areas of the law.

Equity vs. non-equity law firm partner

Equity and non-equity law firm partners can have very similar daily responsibilities. However, they can differ in one important way, which is that equity partners can earn profit shares from a firm in addition to their salaries, while non-equity partners don't. Non-equity partners can still maintain partial ownership of a firm, supervise employees and secure voting rights, but they only receive payment through their salaries and payments from clients.

Common skills for law firm partners and associates

Here are some of the most essential skills for law firm partners and associates:

Skills for law firm partners

Here are a few key skills for law firm partners:

  • Leadership: Law firm partners typically need excellent leadership skills so they can oversee the associates in a firm.

  • Decision-making: This can also be a key skill for partners, as they often have to make important decisions about a firm's operations and standards.

  • Technical knowledge of the law: Most law firm partners have extensive knowledge of the law and the different types of cases that they might encounter so they can argue cases and guide associates.

Skills for law firm associates

Here are some important skills for law firm associates:

  • Collaboration: Law firm associates often work together with other associates and paralegals, so having strong teamwork skills can be beneficial.

  • Adaptability: Most associates enter the field with little or no experience, so being adaptable can benefit them while learning the standards and techniques they need to succeed.

  • Attention to detail: Associates typically argue their own cases, which can be much easier when they have strong attention to detail, which can help them while reviewing evidence and learning new methods.


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