Traditional partnerships in the legal profession refer to firms that were originally formed on the basis of a combining the resources and talent of a number of legal offices into one larger firm. These firms would then generally operate on the basis of the partners overseeing the direction and management of the firm, with a number of associates working under them. This led many smaller firms, such as our proverbial Smith & Doe, growing from fairly humble stature to relatively large size.
In the 1980s and 1990s, traditional partnership firms began to experience serious problems, the result of very poor forward thinking and planning and economic trends within the legal industry. As a result, the amount of partnerships at these firms could grow quite large, and many times were glutted with attorneys who weren’t necessarily good at their jobs, but were only good at surviving in their jobs.
At a certain point, many of these firms had to restrict elevation to partnership of younger associates to where partnership would be based on merit and only partially on tenure with the firm. Less money was coming in, yet with high guarantees often promised to senior partners, this led to many promising but expensive associates being laid off in order to save money. Basically, these firms paid too much to attorneys for work that could have been done, far more cheaply, by paralegals, and thus could not offer services at prices low enough to compete with marketplace.
Traditional partnerships still exist, but many of them that have survived were reorganized so that they can better reflect the financial needs represented by the market. And also, they have increased their dependency on paralegals to handle the work that used to be ascribed to legal associates, at a relative fraction of the cost.
Paralegals in traditional partnership firms tend to assume more tasks, depending on the size and nature of law practiced by the firm, and they tend to be more generalized in their specialties, often being forced to perform many different tasks for their firms, determined on the nature of work that the firm needs completed at the time.