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City giants forced to offer flexible partnership

I’m going to resist the urge to bang on about the year in review, Brexit or even offer a 2010s retrospective. Not much changed in the profession during the decade – apart from the much-documented onslaught of US law firms – and one way or another we will still be facing another Brexit cliff edge next year.

So we turn instead to something that touches the industry where it lives and breathes: partnership. It defines those who hold it, elevating some while corrupting others, shapes a huge global industry and remains the dominant motivational tool for the profession. The second most-read commentary I ever wrote at Legal Business was a piece earlier this year noting that major law firms have broken their social contract by pushing partnership promotions ridiculously late (the most read was a 2016 piece saying Ashurst needed to pull itself together).

In these pages, we often discuss the need for flexibility in partnership, but usually in the hard-nosed context of competing with US firms. But the other side of the coin is becoming as pressing, thanks to the growing demand for broader models of partnership to meet changing career aspirations.

Until very recently such talk has been near heresy – and frequently resisted. Yet I sense a recent change in the wind in the last two years, a shift evident also in comments in this issue’s Global 100 debate. The number of times I have heard people positively mention a report of Baker McKenzie’s unusual arrangement of having two London partners job share (Julia Hemmings and Helen Brown) is striking. Three years ago, no one would have noticed. Ten years ago, a few law firms were even experimenting with part-time or flexible partner schemes, most notably Allen & Overy, but such efforts floundered amid fears of side-lined careers.

Since then the evidence has built up that the ‘give-it-time’ mantra was never going to sort out lack of female representation at partner level, while attitudes across the board have been transformed to flexible working. We may be finally at a tipping point where major law firms will be forced – and they will need to be forced – to accommodate huge chunks of their own talent. And such accommodations will be important to aspiring lawyers less likely than previous generations to hang on a dozen years to maybe make partner.

But if law firm leaders accept there is now an intense demand for flexible models, how should modern partnership look? Enhanced leave, mini-sabbaticals, pro-rata equity allocations – there are already plenty of ad hoc arrangements with individual partners that are kept quiet, in the same way that off-lockstep deals have become increasingly common to fend off US raids. Job shares would be difficult to make work in some cases, but the point is there are options and it is time to discuss them. Publicly. Eventually exception must become the rule.

There is nothing incompatible between partnership and modern aspirations: the rank provides autonomy, validation, status and high rewards – qualities that will appeal to the high-fliers of tomorrow. But it cannot remain hermetically sealed in a version forged in the 1970s and 1980s in a vastly different industry – it needs to evolve with the times.

Perhaps one change for the 2020s that will come to pass?


Legal Business will now take a break from its real time blog but we’ll return early in 2020. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year to all our readers.

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About Alex Novarese

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