Don’t look for permanent, lower-salaried attorneys at Omaha’s big law firms.
A sampling of local offices indicated they haven’t adopted the nonpartner programs that are appearing in some cities, largely because salaries for attorneys in Omaha haven’t inflated in recent years to the point where clients are balking at partner-rate legal work.
That means young attorneys in Omaha are still affordable while they pursue the holy grail of partnership.
But some young attorneys opt voluntarily for fewer hours and less pay, often to gain more family time, managing partners of the Omaha firms said.
For most attorneys in the large firms, the goal is to work into partner positions, which typically means bringing clients into firms and adding revenue, said Roger Wells, a partner with McGrath North Mullin & Kratz in Omaha. He said he hasn’t heard of law firms in the city adopting the “career associate” or “permanent associate” model created by some large law firms in New York and other big cities.
Without the recent salary inflation, Wells said, Omaha firms can keep costs down without creating a lower-paid class of lawyers, Wells said. “We can hire the best law students coming out of the Midwestern law schools that want to live in Omaha” without paying them anywhere near $150,000 to $180,000 a year.
McGrath North does allow some alternative work schedules for young attorneys who are raising families, but those lawyers still pursue partner status and return to full-time work as soon as possible, Wells said. He said young attorneys in Omaha work hard and put in a lot of hours, but they also have private lives.
Law firms in New York or California are using lower-salaried, nonpartner-track attorneys because some of their clients “aren’t willing to accept the big fees necessary to support those big salaries,” Wells said.
Omaha law firms aren’t immune to clients seeking a cheaper “alternate fee structure,” said Travis Tyler, a partner with the Fraser Stryker law firm, especially since the 2009 recession put pressure on legal costs.
If a client wants a certain job done for a flat fee, that’s hard to accomplish with the regular hourly billing of partners and associates, Tyler said. In some cases, firms hire local attorneys on a contract basis to come into the office and work temporarily until a project is done. But that’s different from hiring a permanent, nonpartner-track attorney at a lower salary.
A spokesman for Kutak Rock, a national law firm based in Omaha, said the firm follows the traditional associate-partner model, hoping its new hires become partners. An attorney who doesn’t look like partner material after two or three years typically leaves the firm to continue a career elsewhere.
The Omaha office of Husch Blackwell, a Kansas City, Mo.-based law firm, doesn’t have a formal program for non-partner-bound attorneys, said managing partner Todd Richardson.
But some associates decide to not pursue partner status, he said.
“The firm will work with those people,” he said, and the arrangement can benefit both sides. “We give them the opportunity to have the career path that they’re choosing.” Some decide later to seek a partnership track, and that’s OK, too, he said.
Some new law graduates from Omaha head for the big salaries and demanding work schedules at big-city law firms, said Tammy King, assistant dean of the Creighton University School of Law for career development, and they wouldn’t be satisfied with a nonpartner, lower-salary career.
“If they want to do the big-firm thing, they want to go gung ho and go for the partnership track,” she said. “Once they arrive, occasionally they may realize this isn’t the work-life balance they want, so they may reassess.”
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