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Partners’ post-law career prospects stall as business community refuses to accept that lawyers have delivered on their claims to be commercial. Emma Sadowski reports on the latest Big Question

Partners at leading City firms face an uphill struggle to win senior roles after a career in law, with the overwhelming majority believing commercial lawyers suffer from an image problem in the wider business community.

Results of the latest Legal Week Big Question survey found that 94% of respondents believe commercial lawyers have some level of image problem within the business community, with around one third of respondents claiming it to be a ‘considerable’ problem.

Despite protests by City partners that they are taking a more commercial approach to work than before, the survey found that many believe their efforts have gone unnoticed by clients.

Just under two-thirds (62%) said there is ‘not that much’ perception within the business community of lawyers having become more commercial in their approach, with a further 5% claiming the profession is still seen as divorced from business. Only a third said they felt lawyers are seen to have become more business-literate in recent years.

However, almost 60% of respondents said they see themselves having a career in business after retiring from the law, with 19% stating it as a major ambition and 40% saying they ‘probably’ will have a further career in business. In contrast, only 40% either ruled it out entirely or dismissed it as unlikely.

Anthony Cann, former senior partner of Linklaters and now a non-executive director at Smith News and a chairman of the board of trustees of national disfigurement charity Changing Faces, said: “You may find that people are moving into management roles earlier and will not return to fee earning practice. They will then move into executive roles with businesses. However, people do not like to think lawyers are automatically qualified to enter into the business world.”

Bill Knight (pictured, right), president of the City of London Law Society, told Legal Week that partners’ skills should be recognised outside the law. He said: “If you look at the likes of the managing partners of Linklaters and Freshfields [Bruckhaus Deringer], they are in charge of sizeable international businesses – that makes them astute businessmen, not just lawyers.”

Respondents were generally upbeat about the opportunities available to them outside the law, with 62% of the lawyers surveyed believing there are generally enough opportunities, and almost 9% believing they are ‘greatly valued’ within the business world.

Against this, 28% argued that experienced lawyers have little opportunity to enter business, with 2% saying trying to get a post is like ‘banging your head against a brick wall.”

Despite the fact that more than half of those surveyed see themselves pursuing a career outside the law on retirement, respondents were divided about how suitable lawyers are for non-legal roles.

Sixty-one percent said lawyers were either ‘very’ or ‘considerably’ suited to non-executive roles in major companies after retirement.

Shearman & Sterling structured finance partner Julian Tucker said: “Lawyers have organisational skills and insight into the corporate world and are often giving advice on a strategic basis, so they do bring these skills to the table. Many of the world’s top bankers trained as lawyers.”

However, the number doubting partners’ suitability increased when questioned about lawyers taking up executive roles in companies. Only a third of respondents thought lawyers were either very or considerably suited to executive roles, with the overwhelming majority (65%) saying it would only be appropriate in some circumstances.

Earlier this year, the appointment of former UBS general counsel Peter Kurer as chairman of the Swiss banking giant came under extensive criticism from the banking community.

Cripps Harries Hall partner Ed Weeks (pictured, left) commented: “As law firms become more like their corporate clients in structure and mindset, the transition from lawyer to business person will become easier. However, at present it is a leap too far for most lawyers.”

One senior finance partner at a US law firm said: “Lawyers do not make good managers – it is quite unsuitable for lawyers to move into business.”

The survey results come against a backdrop of firms trying to introduce support systems for partners looking for career opportunities outside the law. As reported by Legal Week earlier this month Freshfields, Clifford Chance and Simmons & Simmons are among the firms looking at offering guidance to partners.

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