The questionable future of partners and associates

The evidence is growing that neither “partner” nor “associate” is going to be a meaningful term in law firms of the future. Both of these hallowed pillars of law firms’ talent structure are starting to be used more as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves.

In terms of partners, consider this article from The Lawyer about firms trying to expand overseas but having difficulty persuading lawyers to transfer to the new offices (especially in Dubai). One tactic firms are employing is to offer lawyers who accept the foreign posting the opportunity to make partner much more quickly than they normally would. Think about that one for a moment.

Partnership, which was once considered the ultimate law firm goal, is being reduced to an incentive the firm dangles in order to get what it really wants — boots on the ground in fast-growing locations worldwide. It’s been a while since admittance to partnership actually was a genuine endorsement of a lawyer’s skills and professionalism through invitation to an exclusive, tight-knit community with common goals. But it’s still surprising to see the fast track to partnership deployed as just another behavioural incentive — especially since partnership really doesn’t turn so many associates’ cranks nowadays.

To get a sense of how firms view those associates, take a look at how the chair of Simpson Thacher responded to a rumour that his firm was culling 30 associates through poor midyear reviews, an attrition tactic not unknown to large firms: “This is something that was made up by that rag in the U.K., it’s just complete nonsense” — the rag in question being The Lawyer, not a newspaper normally associated with Fleet Street standards.

That’s an unusually harsh reaction, and there could be a number of reasons for it. But one of the most compelling is that firms are increasingly allergic to any suggestion of associate layoffs, because of the severe negative publicity that accompanies it.

In the short term, the firm suffers the slings and arrows of the blawgosphere’s crasser elements — not fatal, but not fun either. But in the long term, the firm’s reputation as a safe, solid presence in the marketplace is damaged — and for more than a few firms, that reputation is what keeps them together in an incredibly competitive and fluid market for both clients and talent. Perfectly competent law firms have collapsed on short notice before, when both external and internal opinion of their unsustainability hit a critical point. In these volatile times, firms understandably want that risk to approach zero.

So here again, we have associate retention not viewed as a goal in itself, but as a PR element to be managed in order to serve the real objective: marketplace confidence. It’s not like there’s an epidemic of associate layoffs underway — quite the opposite, the National Law Journal points out — but in the powerful light of scrutiny from an increasingly influential legal media (traditional and online), firms are willing to go to great lengths to project the image that everything’s fine here, nothing to see, move along now.

What all this points up, I think, is the decreasing importance of partnership status and associate retention in firms’ strategic thinking — a quiet recognition that neither is as important as it used to be in the grand scheme of things.

These have always been two of the cornerstones of law firms’ survival and growth plans — having a partnership worth striving towards and an associate complement primed and suited to be the firm’s future leaders. It’s the prism through which we’ve become accustomed to thinking about law firms’ talent and viewing how these firms behave and succeed. But I think that’s about to change, and I think we need to get ready to adjust that prism and start watching other talent indicators instead.

Any candidates? Here’s one, courtesy of LegalWeek: Clifford Chance and Eversheds both announced plans to increase the amount of real legal work outsourced to India. It’s only small commercial contracts, due diligence, and document review — so far. But it’s pretty rare for law firms, even innovative Magic Circle members, to be so nonchalant about offshoring, and it remains unknown for North American firms to go public with similar activities. This is the future talent focus for forward-thinking law firms — not associates or partners, but the best legal talent anywhere in the world that can accomplish tasks with a combination of maximum competence and minimum cost.

So get ready to see partners morph into full-equity rainmaking shareholders, huge associate cohorts shrink into scattered contract specialists, and the majority of a law firm’s legal employees stationed outside its headquarters — assuming it even has headquarters at all. This is not that far in the future, and you can see it starting to happen today in the way firms prioritize — or not — their one-time cornerstones.


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