In June 2011, Ryan Farley claimed a status he had ached for since graduating from law school 13 years earlier: partner at a large law firm.
The achievement, however, didn't come as Farley once expected it would, through a singular devotion to the first firm that hired him. Like many attorneys struggling to advance in an increasingly competitive law firm environment, he wound up making a few unanticipated stops that slowed his progress.
In Farley's case, that meant spending the first nine years of his career as a litigation associate at Mayer Brown before being told he had no future at the firm. Next came counsel positions at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and Baker & Hostetler. Eventually, Richmond-based LeClairRyan recruited him to join its New York office as a shareholder in 2011.
Though Farley finally had the title he had long aspired to, an addiction to alcohol made it difficult for him to stay focused on the work that went with it. Less than a year after he joined LeClair, the firm fired him. Then, on a Saturday morning in late September, police in Montclair, N.J., were called to Farley's apartment, where they found him dead on the floor. He was 39 years old.
Farley's death shook family members, friends and former colleagues who had watched him work hard to carve out a niche at some of the country's top law firms while struggling with the accompanying pressures.
"As an associate, he was not always in control of his career," says Anthony Diana, a Mayer Brown partner who was five years ahead of Farley and became close to him over time. "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good." Still, despite leaving Mayer Brown under a cloud of disappointment, Diana adds, Farley never stopped thinking of himself as a Mayer Brown attorney: "That's what made Ryan the epitome of a good friend. He was intensely loyal."
Although Farley's personal and professional setbacks were the product of his own particular circumstances, they reflect the kinds of anxieties that exist throughout the associate ranks of the nation's largest law firms. Not every first-year associate yearns to make partner, but those who do face long odds: A third of each first-year class typically leaves by the end of the third-year; two-thirds are gone by the end of the sixth. Those who remain must compete for an ever-shrinking number of partner positions.
"These days, the pressure that comes with having to be a technical expert as well as someone who has the potential to build business is far too much for most people," says Joi Bourgeois, a consultant who works with associates making the transition out of law firms. "I believe many people on the path to partnership have no chance. They just don't know they have no chance."
Aiming high from the start
Ryan Patrick Farley was born June 9, 1973, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the only child of Boris and Evelyn Farley. The family moved frequently as Boris Farley changed jobs during his career with the Coca-Cola Co. They had lived in Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas by the time Ryan was 9, according to Evelyn Farley. From there, it was on to Hong Kong and Bangkok, and then back to the United States, with the Farleys spending the latter part of Ryan's high school years in Georgia.
"He was an inquisitive, happy child, and always had to be doing something," Evelyn Farley told The Am Law Daily via email, recalling her son exploring China's seas during summer camp and speaking French to waiters and patrons in Parisian cafes. "He soaked in everything and wanted to do everything."
He was just 6 years old, she says, when he announced that he planned to become a lawyer. "He never changed his mind throughout his young life. He loved the law and had the ability to understand the safeguards that were put in place to [protect] one's rights."