Our firm is a 12 attorney firm in Houston. Currently we have three equity partners and nine associates. Several of our associates have been with the firm for over ten years. My partners and I are all in our early 60s and are beginning to think about succession and retirement. If possible, we would like to keep the firm within the family and not go the merger route. What are your thoughts concerning two tier partnership structures (equity and non-equity partnership)? Should we consider bringing associates in first into a non-equity tier?
I believe that a non-equity tier gives a firm a way to give associates the professional recognition and status of being a partner without conveying actual ownership and diluting ownership and control. Often a key differentiating factor between equity and non-equity partnership is client origination. Partners that don't originate a sizeable book of business often don't make it to the equity tier. For very small firms a non-equity often does not make sense - for others it often does. If you believe, as I do, that equity partners should be client originators and if you currently have a mix of client originator and non client originator associates with ten years or more time with the firm you may want to consider a two tier structure. You should carefully define, and put in writing, admission criteria for each tier.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC