Do law firms take partnership for granted? They really shouldn’t as the model has served them so well. Just consider the case. Partnership aligns management and ownership. This has helped large law firms to avoid the patchy governance and rewards-for-mediocrity seen at public companies over the last 20 years and drives partners to a pure form of performance pay. It is inherently long-term and as such has a strong record in promoting independence and ethical standards. And given that law isn’t a capital-intensive trade – at least once you cross the Rubicon of international expansion – partnership is workable (if not ideal) from a financing point of view.
But the killer app of partnership is the meritocratic oddity of institutions aiming to turn a group of workers into owners. It promotes a razor focus on career development and does a lot of the heavy lifting in governance terms at law firms. That obsessive focus on standards and talent coming through the door truly marks out the legal profession from other, less successful industries.
Why the love-letter to partnership? Well, looking at the grim statistics on partner promotions, as we do this month, you can’t escape the feeling that leading law firms are pushing their luck. The top ten largest UK firms, including DLA Piper and Hogan Lovells, together have over 5,500 partners. This group collectively promoted 197 new partners in 2013 – equivalent to 3.5% of their current ranks. These levels are well below the replacement rate needed to sustain partnerships at current sizes and the picture is considerably worse if you look at UK partner prospects. Given that less than half of those making partner trained with their firm or joined at intake level, the traditional track to equity is under unprecedented strain. And as to women making partner – well, even a hard-nosed pragmatist would have to say the current numbers at major City firms – with the honourable exception of Norton Rose – are woeful given the public hand-wringing of recent years.
It still works for now but at a certain point, an increasingly remote partnership will surely cease to function as an effective long-term engagement tool. That would likely leave you with strong junior ranks given the appeal of law. But if joining a law firm really becomes mainly about a start of a career largely focused outside of private practice, the crucial mid-tier associate ranks will be under siege. This is not theoretical – a growing body of research confirms the fading allure of partnership, especially among female lawyers.
Law firm leaders acknowledge this existential threat to partnership but, when it comes down to the annual promotion round, the model is chipped away every year with smaller promotions and more barriers to equity.
We’ve moved into a curious half-life of partnership where the pretence is maintained that the old deal hasn’t changed. But it has changed and we could even soon reach a tipping point where the dominant path for a legal career is one without partnership. That would have huge implications for the UK legal profession. The suspicion is managing partners will come to regret pushing to breaking point the institution that once elevated them.