Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124

Understanding Law Firm Hierarchies | Explore Law Firms and Legal Advice

In most law firms, the hierarchy is conceptually set up like a pyramid with the partners – the senior most attorneys – at its apex, more junior attorneys ranking below them and so on. But dig deeper and you’ll find the structure a bit more complicated than it appears at first glance.

For example, at Big Law firms, individual practice groups may have their own departmental hierarchies, effectively operating as mini-law firms within the larger organization. At the same time, smaller firms have flatter hierarchies that allow for more flexibility and collaboration, says Jamy Sullivan, executive director of Robert Half International’s legal practice.

While there are more subtle aspects to law firm structure, and individual firms do differ by size and firm culture, understanding the prototypical law firm hierarchy can be helpful for both attorneys and clients alike.

Managing Partner

The managing partner sits atop the law firm’s hierarchy. In this role, the managing partner lays out a vision for the firm, then develops the strategic plan to achieve that goal. The managing partner dictates the firm’s finances, including determining overall compensation packages and overhead costs. A managing partner, who frequently has more than 20 years of experience at a firm, is often elected to the position by the firm’s attorneys, Sullivan says.

As law firms are increasingly run more like other large businesses, some firms now give managing partners a title that reflects their leadership responsibilities such as chief executive officer, chairman or managing director.

Executive Committee and Other Leadership Committees

In large firms, managing partners don’t run the firms by themselves. Instead, senior partners join them in an executive committee that addresses firm-wide issues such as hiring, compensation, firm mergers and marketing, according to a presentation from Georgetown Law’s Office of Career Strategy.

The executive committee is responsible for elevating the firm’s business and the practice of law. “I look at it almost as a board of directors,” Sullivan says.

Firms may have other committees tackle issues such as hiring. And they may have specialty committees on topics such as wellness, where they may include more junior attorneys to participate in aspects of firm leadership.


Partnerships are split into tiers at most of the nation’s large law firms, according to surveys by the National Association for Law Placement. Generally speaking, these tiers consist of equity partners and nonequity partners.

As the firm’s senior-most attorneys, equity partners own shares of a firm and split the firm’s profits. They drive the firm’s growth as each partner has a book of business. Crucially, they maintain existing client relationships and attract new clients, while meeting a firm’s billable hours requirement each year.

Equity partners have voting rights to determine decisions relating to firm investment, growth and staffing. They supervise attorneys, support staff and – depending on the firm’s size – are often the heads of firms’ practice groups.

A nonequity partner has many of the same responsibilities, but they do not have an ownership position in the firm and have more limited voting rights. Often nonequity partners must make a capital contribution to the firm before they can become an equity partner.

Nonequity partnership can also be a longer position or even a permanent option for accomplished attorneys who want more flexibility in terms of work-life balance than an equity position would allow, Sullivan says.

Of Counsel

There are two types of “of counsel” attorneys in law firms.

The first are veteran attorneys – often former partners or semi-retired attorneys – who want to be affiliated with a firm without the revenue requirements. They may work part-time and only for a particular client or on matters upon which they have specialized expertise, Sullivan says.

The other “of counsel” attorneys are experienced mid-career lawyers who work full time and may have leadership roles on specific matters. While some are building the book of business they need before they can become partners, others may remain permanently in their “of counsel” role.


Associates are attorneys who join law firms as members of a “class,” and their status is based on how many years they’ve worked at a firm since graduation. For example, a “first-year associate” is straight out of law school and learning standard concepts and practices.

“Senior associates” have been at a firm for years. Much like younger partners, they’re handling more complex matters with a leadership role in some cases and supervising junior associates, Sullivan says.

Many large firms operate with an up-or-out system, meaning associates who have worked at the firm for eight to 10 years are either invited to become a partner (or of counsel) or they’re asked to leave the firm. Before then, many associates will have left to join smaller firms or take other positions.

Not Every Firm Lawyer Is on the Partnership Track

Law firms may also employ permanent associates, staff or contract attorneys who specialize in a type of work, such as researching case law and analyzing documents. These attorneys can have a key role in fulfilling firms’ internal legal needs, such as managing ethics and conflicts programs, Sullivan says.

These attorneys usually don’t have requirements for billable hours or bringing business to the firm. Therefore, these positions are sometimes considered better for attorneys who prioritize work-life balance. But these attorneys are paid less than partnership-track associates, and they have limited opportunities for promotion.

Paralegals and Other Support Positions

“Paralegals are the left hand of the attorneys. They provide critical support – documentation preparation, research, case management and even basic client communication,” Sullivan says. They free up attorneys from those tasks, so the attorneys can do more strategic work.

And paralegals can, in practice, shift the firm hierarchy, particularly in smaller firms where a senior paralegal can effectively outrank an associate. Their real-world experience can trump a first-year associate’s, no matter how involved they were in law school, she says.

A Loosening of the Hierarchy Means More Opportunities Now and in the Future

To retain talent they can’t afford to lose, many firms have become more flexible, adding new tiers to the partnership track and non-partnership positions.

Rather than face the up-and-out, lawyers are more able to choose to pursue promotion or remain at a particular position in the hierarchy, according to Sullivan.

“It’s a grind to get to the top. There is still complexity and still an eco-system that you have to follow, but not as much as it used to be,” she says.

These new options mean attorneys’ careers are increasingly defined by their personal goals rather than the firm’s.

Sarah Goldberg
Sarah Goldberg

Sarah is a seasoned financial market expert with a decade of experience. She's known for her analytical skills, attention to detail, and ability to communicate complex financial concepts. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Finance, is a licensed financial advisor, and enjoys reading and traveling in her free time.

Articles: 968