How Are Law Firms Structured?

Written by Jack Levinson

Careers in law are attractive to many, as it is a path that can lead to stimulating and rewarding career opportunities. It’s also a growing field: the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an anticipated growth of 9% for lawyers by 2030.

For those who are pursuing professions in the legal field, it can be helpful to get an education about the organizational structure of law firms in order to really have a lay of the land. From visualizing the path from paralegal to partner, to understanding the difference between equity partnership and non-equity partnership, if you know how law firms are structured, you can approach your legal career with intention and clarity to get the most from your law career.

meeting between lawyers

So how are law firms structured, and what is the most you can hope to make as an attorney? Here, you can learn more about law firm structure, the different roles within a law firm, and the range of salaries for lawyers.

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Law Firm Organizational Structure

There are typically three tiers in a law firm hierarchy: partners, associates, and staff employees. Though the particulars of a law firm – such as its size, its branch of law, and its number of clients – can dramatically impact its organizational structure and individual worker trajectories, these three ranks of employees almost always exist within a legal organization.


Legal partners are the business directors and joint owners of a law firm, whose names are frequently included in the name of the firm. For most practicing attorneys, becoming a partner is the end goal of their practice, though it is a position many hold for a significant portion of their career.

Partners typically have all of the responsibilities of any lawyer at the firm, including all of the work related to representing individual clients (from client meetings to making court appearances), plus the additional responsibilities of running the firm. This means they are also in charge of hiring decisions, supervising the cases of more junior attorneys, and managing and overseeing the firm’s client intake.

In fact, many law firms’ organizational structures involve a hierarchy of partners as well, which is usually determined by seniority in the company. This arrangement is outlined in the section below.

Law Firm Partnership Structure

Traditionally, law firms offered a fairly standard path for new employees: law associates, after a certain amount of time and after demonstrating a certain amount of skill, would be promoted to join the partnership of their firm. At this point they would become equity partners, meaning partners who are paid not only for their services but are also paid out of company profits.

As the legal profession has evolved, new forms of partnership have been created, as well as new paths to becoming a managing partner of a firm. Some firms include non-equity partners, meaning attorneys who share many of the advanced responsibilities of legal partners while remaining on a fixed income – in other words, not sharing company profits. In firms that feature this structure, this is often a middle step between associateship and full-fledged partnership, and most non-equity partners are eventually offered the opportunity to become equity partners.

In medium-sized or large law firms, there may also be another hierarchy of partners: managing partners. These attorneys are at the top of the ladder, making the primary operational and strategic decisions of the firm, and senior partners, who report to them.


Associates are lower-ranking attorneys in the law firm organizational structure, though they perform a significant amount of work for their firms. Associates tend to be newer to their firms and less experienced at practicing law, and their time spent in the associate role builds the experience and expertise needed to graduate to partner.

Associates tend to take on a large number of cases and manage the extensive work needed to prepare a court case, from overseeing client and witness depositions to working with paralegals to find and organize key pieces of evidence used in their cases. This work is typically assigned and managed by a legal partner, whose supervision helps associates improve at their jobs and gain the work experience that will help them rise up the ladder.

Most lawyers hold an associate position at a law firm for anywhere from six to ten years before being promoted to partner. Though this may sound like a long time to some, it promises a significant increase in salary and a significant shift in responsibilities, and one can spend a good amount of their career in a partner position.

paralegal hard at work

Other Law Firm Staff Positions

There are numerous other roles in a law firm who are indispensable to how law firms are structured. Some of these staffers may themselves be aspiring lawyers or active law students, while others do not hold law degrees and are not in line to eventually become partners, but develop expertise in performing important duties in the legal process.

Some of the non-lawyer employee roles at a law firm include:

  • Paralegals: Oftentimes law students or aspiring law students themselves, paralegals help attorneys with the lowest level of the skilled work that is required for active cases, from assisting in preparations for trials and hearings to doing legal research to save attorneys the work of tracking down important information about the law themselves.
  • Legal secretaries: Legal secretaries help both attorneys and paralegals with the clerical work needed to prepare for cases and client meetings. They also sometimes engage directly with clients to facilitate the handoff of paperwork and other documents needed for cases.
  • Title examiner: For lawyers whose cases involve real estate, a title examiner can provide support in tracking down and investigating the relevant property titles, summarizing key information about mortgages and other details about the property’s history.

While in law school, it is standard for students to take on positions as law clerks, normally during the summer months when school is not in session. For many, this is an opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with a law firm, where they may become an associate after graduation.

These are just a few of the most unique positions within a law firm organizational structure, though there are many other roles on the administrative side of things. These roles include human resource managers, accountants, and IT managers. Because the world of law requires such specialized knowledge, even staffers in these roles tend to develop particular expertise, finding a career path in their particular role in the legal field.

busy room of lawyers

Salary Structures for Lawyers

One of the most important things that one’s rank in a law firm determines is salary. Attorneys can be among the best compensated professions in the country: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual salary of $127,990 for lawyers, a number that surely makes the profession attractive to many. But attorneys can take home vastly different salaries, with pay greatly determined by their seniority and ranking.

Law firm partners generally make considerably more money than associates, as they have greater responsibilities and typically more advanced experience. This is especially true for equity partners, who also earn a portion of their pay from their business’ profits. At the top of the field, partner salaries can be immense: the Journal of the American Bar Association reports that in 2020, equity partners at the top 200 law firms in the country earned an average of $1.054 million.

Associates tend to receive far less compensation, though their annual base pay still exceeds that of many professions. Oftentimes a crucial factor in determining a lawyer’s salary is the size of the firm. The National Association for Law Placement reports a median base salary for first-year associates of about $90,000 at smaller firms in 2021. At larger firms, the number was considerably higher: an impressive $190,000 median starting salary.

For legal assistants and paralegals, Public Legal reports a greater range of salaries in the year 2019. Law clerks, who are entry-level employees, had a salary range of $37,250 – $48,000 at large law firms. Meanwhile, junior paralegals with 2-3 years of experience took home between $48,750 and $64,000.

Finally, the same report from Public Legal details the salaries of employees on the administrative and support side of law firms. Administrators and office managers at large law firms frequently earn impressive salaries as well, with a salary range of $98,250 – $160,250. Senior legal secretaries have a salary range of $65,000 – $75,000.

Becoming a Lawyer: Taking the Next Steps

Now that you know about how law firms are structured, it will be easier to set goals to shape your ideal career in law. If you dream of one day becoming a managing partner at a law firm, your journey starts with meeting the specific obligations of your state. To learn more about education, exam, and license requirements in your state, visit our guide here.