FORTUNE — “I just made partner” sure sounds like music to the ears. It’s a line many early-career employees at law firms and investment banks aim to say one day.
But making partner doesn’t mean what it used to. It hasn’t for a while, in fact. And still, many entering the workforce covet that milestone.
Why? There are a couple of reasons, most of them having to do with tradition and pay. And while making partner isn’t meaningless, job seekers entering the workforce should question whether it’s a solid end-goal.
About 20 years ago, the benefits of making partner at a firm were clear. It meant a pay increase, first of all, and there was a distinction of responsibilities between partners and associates. A partner was one of few shareholders in the company or firm. But these days, “it’s harder than ever to become an equity partner,” says Robin Sparkman, the editor in chief of the American Lawyer, “it takes longer, and the demands on that lawyer are more stringent.”
According to data collected by the American Lawyer, about 78% of all partners at the top 200 law firms (ranked by revenue) were equity partners in 2000. By 2010, 62% of partners at these firms had the same status.
No longer is making partner a golden ticket. In fact, in some cases, it can mean the opposite. Earlier this month, for example, about 20 partners at law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf left en masse after the firm couldn’t make good on some of the promised perks of partnership. And, in the world of investment banking, Goldman Sachs (GS) has seen its fair share of partner-level departures in recent months. Arguably, Goldman’s culture started to change about a decade ago when it transitioned from a true partnership to a public company.
The model of having a firm with a small group of owners who held equity stakes began to break down over the past couple of decades as financial and legal firms expanded, merged, and globalized. Then the recession hit, and firms simply had less money to give to people. Now, as many are starting to rehire, each defines its internal hierarchy differently.
“Law firms just have to face the reality that they can’t make too many people equity partners or they can’t survive,” says Gerry Riskin, founding partner of law firm consulting firm Edge International. As a result, he says, some offer tiered partnerships with equity partners at the top. Other levels of partnership, Riskin says, “may be based on what other firms are doing, or may be just a glorified way of paying a salary.”
“Partner is as broad of a word as cancer is,” says Ken Young, who is part of the American Board Association’s Law Practice Management Section. “To the business community, it means something, but people need to dig beneath the title.”
That includes young people looking for jobs at firms. No longer is the key question during an interview, “when will I make partner?” but instead, “what, exactly, does making partner mean?”
In some cases, becoming partner can include a rather toxic contract, Young says. Some firms force lawyers to sign agreements that penalize them for leaving the partnership. Young knows of firms, for example, that require partners to agree to forfeit all of their capital contributions from the previous year should they decide to leave.
Yet still, the term “partner” holds sway. And as long as a partnership also means a pay increase, its associated cachet will stick around. Even though the contracts have changed, the status hasn’t. It’s like the logo on a polo shirt, Young says. It’s a holdover from the traditional system, and it’s something to tell your parents, or use to impress people at a cocktail party.
“We are a society that recognizes pedigree steps along the way,” says Michael Serino, executive director of Human Capital Development at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. That’s especially true for the kind of person competing to make partner at a top law firm, who has probably been raised on accolades they’ve received for various educational and professional achievements.
But context is also important: being a partner doesn’t only matter internally, Riskin says: “It’s not just ego, it’s really positioning — it affects the way this individual will be perceived professionally.” Clients, on the whole, prefer to work with partners, regardless of the compensation agreements behind the curtain.
That being said, the workforce is changing. Younger people want different things from their jobs than employees who have been at firms longer. Generally, new hires at firms are less interested in loyalty to one company long-term, and more interested in building a career that supports their value system. That tends to mean more job-hopping, which is less conducive to a system that requires paying dues at one firm for years until making partner.
On the flip side, many young people entering legal or financial firms are taking those jobs at a time when there simply isn’t an excess of equity and funding to divvy up between people, which somewhat starves the old partnership model.
“I don’t think there are any givens anymore, and perhaps the old model had more givens,” Serino says. “The people that navigate that successfully have to reconsider the assumptions and constantly be ready to anticipate how workplace market conditions are going to change.” In other words, young people at big firms will need to redefine the old milestones.