Terms for Associates Who Won’t Make Partner but Who Are Allowed to Stick Around

The old, Darwinian rule for associates was ‘up or out’, meaning that if you weren’t going to be asked to join the partnership, you’d be more or less politely shown the door.

Some firms still do it that way, but not all. Terminology varies, but the most common term in my neck of the woods for someone who’ll never have a corner office is Senior Associate.

Counsel is also used for associates not on the partner track, but also for lawyers past retirement age but still profitable or prestigious enough to keep on board. Counsel is also used for senior lateral hires who are not immediately made partners, although that often follows after a sort of probationary period.

In the US, there is a wider variety of nomenclature. The grey-haired types are described as being Of Counsel, which has been turned into an unfortunate bastard noun (‘We have six distinguished Of Counsels at our firm’). For associates who aren’t on the partner track, these titles are apparently seen on US business cards:

  • Career Associate
  • Permanent Associate
  • Staff Attorney
  • Practice Group Attorney
  • Department Attorney
  • Team Attorney
  • Innovative Staffing Attorney
  • Agile Counsel

The last two sound bizarre: don’t you want all your lawyers to be agile, at least mentally? and is every other job assignment unimaginative? Career Associate and Permanent Associate are descriptive but a bit tragic (career-limited, stuck in a rut) – and Permanent may imply a level of job security which no associate should expect. Staff Attorney suggests in-house counsel to me, but maybe that’s the idea. The others have a Knowledge Management feel to them, but that may accurately reflect the work this type of lawyer ends up doing. In the UK, this would be a Professional Support Lawyer or PSL, in Canada a KM Lawyer (if not a Senior Associate). In light of that KM-ish category, Agile Counsel may refer to Agile, the project-management process, rather than agile (the normal adjective). That makes a bit more sense, but as a job description it would baffle all but initiates…

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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