An associate may be a junior or senior attorney, but normally does not hold an ownership interest in the firm even if associated with the firm for many years.
Generally, an associate has the goal of being made a partner in the firm, after a number of years gaining practice experience and being assigned to increasingly more important and remunerative tasks. At firms with an “up or out” policy, associates who are repeatedly passed over for promotion to partner may be asked to resign. Some firms will also have “non-partner-track” associates who, though performing satisfactorily as employees, for whatever reason, will not be promoted to partner.
Junior attorneys were formerly called “law clerks”; the term “associate attorney” was coined by Emory Buckner, hiring partner of Root, Clark & Bird (which subsequently became Dewey Ballantine) in the 1920s. The term “law clerk” now generally refers to an attorney who serves as a research and writing assistant in a judge’s chambers, although some law firms use the term to refer to a lawyer or non-lawyer who has specialized knowledge in one of the firm’s practice areas but is not classified as a practicing attorney at the law firm.