Legal Business Blogs

Comment: ‘This ain’t stewardship’ – delaying partnership until mid-30s is unsustainable

Having recently shared a few drinks with one of the most talked-up youngish corporate lawyers in the City, the question came up about mid-way through as to what age they made partner. The answer: 36! And there lies much of what ails major law firms, though older partners continue to float around effecting increasingly unconvincing attitudes of surprise.

Consider a few issues for a moment. The haemorrhaging of female talent at mid-level from private practice. The disengagement of associates under 30 with major law firms. The loss of talented lawyers to US law firms. Client dissatisfaction with lack of partner time. Inter-generational tension in law firms. All of these issues have a common theme: the sustained yet unsustainable practice of major law firms pushing partnership decisions until far too late. And let’s be frank: routinely delaying partnership decisions until lawyers hit their mid-thirties is ludicrous.

Much of this happens because City law firms strive to keep partner profits by restricting access. But much of the hand-wringing debate about changing attitudes to work among younger lawyers misses the snowflake-encrusted elephant in the room. There has not in living memory been an age in which junior lawyers have been content to plough on in the hopes of the distant prospect of partnership ten to 12 years after qualification. The same veteran partners fretting about Millennials, themselves generally made partner four or five years earlier than the current practice at a time when the odds of success were a lot higher than now.

So if you are part of a major law firm that doesn’t routinely make up your best associates at the seven-to-eight year PQE mark, you are singularly ill-suited for the industry as it stands and looks likely to evolve. Older partners – and law firm leaders – can keep pretending to not see the issue staring them in the face but it won’t end well for your firm. Of course, older partners have decent odds of making it profitably to retirement but for the few lawyers still into that quaint notion of leaving the firm stronger than you found it, well, this ain’t stewardship.

Let’s be frank: routinely delaying partnership decisions until lawyers are hitting mid-thirties is ludicrous.

Consider the meteoric rise of Kirkland & Ellis. There are many singular elements to the Kirkland formula but the most potent is its dual-tournament structure that allows for early promotion to salaried partner before a second chance at full equity. And yet no other element of its model is more derided by rivals for reasons that remain mysterious to neutral observers. Kirkland unsurprisingly doesn’t fret much about changing attitudes to work.

The reason salaried partner ranks have historically caused issues in law firms is that they were usually tools of financial engineering rather than progression. But there is nothing wrong with models that allow for quicker decisions on promotion. Partnership models are just a means to an end. The end should be to create and sustain a great law firm on a long-term basis, including supporting strong client service and engaging, retaining and motivating talent from senior associates through to veteran partner level. If it can’t do that – and none of the four international members of the Magic Circle currently pass that test – it needs to change and the sooner that is accepted the better. Because the best senior associates won’t be hanging around waiting for their firms to face reality.