As noted in my previous article, when top law firms are conducting initial evaluations of associate candidates they primarily focus on certain “tangible” credentials that can be easily determined at the time of the candidate’s application. These credentials include the prestige of the candidate’s law school, their grades and class rank, the prestige of their current law firm (or company if in house), their billable hours, the current market demand for their practice area and their class year. In making initial evaluations of partner candidates, law firms consider these same tangible credentials with the exception of class year. As with associates, once a firm does decide that it has interest in a partner based on these preliminary “tangible” credentials, the firm will then evaluate several more “intangible” credentials through interviews, references and the like. These more intangible credentials include intellect, skill, personality, reputation, teamwork, drive and “fit.”
However, there is an additional credential that is generally only used for partner-level candidates (and a small number of exceptional senior associate candidates). This credential is the amount of client business that the partner candidate can bring with them to the prospective new firm. This amount is commonly referred to as a partner’s “portable business,” “portable clients” or “book of business.” Law firms typically seek between $300K and $3M+ in portable business from partner-level candidates, depending on the size, prestige and the financial situation of the particular firm. These amounts can sometimes be affected by other factors, such as whether the firm has partner-level work already available and certain other strengths the partner may be able to bring to the table.
Moreover, portable business is, by far, the most important credential for partners. Consequently, partners who have a large “book” are going to be in much higher demand than partners who do not have much portable business. This is true even if a partner lacking portable business has otherwise superior credentials (top law school, top firm, skill, reputation, personality, work ethic, etc.).
The reason for this is related to a fundamental difference between associate and partner candidates. With respect to associates, firms will not hire them unless there is already enough work available to keep the associate fully engaged. The firms also usually prefer to hire junior associates to do the work. Consequently, it is less likely for a firm to seek a more senior associate and very less likely for it to hire a partner level candidate for this purpose. Rather, partners are expected to “bring their own work” to keep themselves fully busy and preferably work for others as well.
For partner level attorneys who are seeking to go in house, however, portable business is not an issue. For some attorneys, the absence of an expectation to bring and further develop a large practice is one of the major advantages of in house positions. On the other hand, this advantage can become a disadvantage when in house attorneys get “downsized” or otherwise have to look for another job in law firms are unable to get in the door because they lack portable business.