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An equity partner is a partner in a partnership who is a part-owner of the business, and is entitled to a proportion of the distributable profits of the partnership. The term is used in contradistinction to a salaried partner (or contract partner) who is paid a salary but does not have any underlying ownership interest in the business and will not share in the distributions of the partnership (although it is quite common for salaried partners to receive a bonus based on the firm's profitability).
Although they are both regarded as partners, in legal and economic terms, equity partners and salaried partners have little in common other than joint and several liability. The degree of control which each type of partner exerts over the partnership depends on the relevant partnership agreement.
Type of equity partnership
In their most basic form, equity partners enjoy a fixed share of the partnership (usually, but not always an equal share with the other partners).
However, in more sophisticated partnerships, different models exist for determining either ownership or profit distribution (or both).
Lockstep involves new partners joining the partnership with a certain number of "points". As time passes, they accrue additional points, until they reach a set maximum sometimes referred to as a plateau. The length of time it takes to reach the maximum is often used to describe the firm (so, for example, one could say that one firm has a "seven-year lockstep" and another has a "ten-year lockstep" depending on the length of time it takes to reach maximum equity).
Eat-what-you-kill is rarely, if ever, seen outside of law firms. The principle is simply that each partner receives a share of the partnership profits up to a certain amount, with any additional profits being distributed to the partner who was responsible for the "origination" of the work that generated the profits.
British law firms tend to use the lockstep principle, whereas American firms are more accustomed to eat-what-you-kill. When British firm Clifford Chance merged with American firm Rogers & Wells, many of the difficulties associated with that merger were blamed on the difficulties of merging a lockstep culture with an eat-what-you-kill culture.
- In many legal systems, salaried partners are not technically "partners" at all in the eyes of the law. However, they are nonetheless jointly liable as their firms "hold them out" as partners.