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.
A few years ago – during what in retrospect turned out to be a boom – you knew where you stood with City law. The market kept growing and, while the man in the street associated lawyers with courts and disputes, those in the industry knew success came from the other side of the equation. In short, you made the real money from deal-doing and associated disciplines, not the contentious side of practice.
There’s nothing like a bit of schadenfreude when matters go awry and the collapse of Cobbetts as an independent entity has proved no exception. Since it was confirmed that the firm was to become the first major UK practice to fail since the 2010 break-up of its local rival Halliwells, plenty have claimed the end was inevitable and a direct result of over-reach.
A lot of firms talk a lot of rubbish about cohesive, collegiate partnerships these days but the competitive spirit within law firms is alive and well. Politicking, back-stabbing and underhand, cut-throat tactics are all employed to help everyone ascend the greasy pole. But there is another way. Snubbing the hard-nosed approach can work: just look at Bristows.
When we first published the gross fees of 35 leading firms with revenues over £20m in 1992, we were approaching the peak of the information age: the exponential rise of e-mail, the web and the mobile phone. Suddenly the way we went about our daily lives changed forever and we have rarely looked back. But as technology changed everything over the past two decades, the legal profession has remained a constant.