Legal Week canvassed associates for their views on career progression and partnership. Suzi Ring reports

If you ask any senior lawyer in the City what the best day of their professional life has been, many – perhaps most – would say it was the day that they made partner.

Partnership means the promise of a share in your firm’s profits, your own clients to look after, your own team to run and, of course, some control over your own destiny after years of sacrifice and hard work. Partnership has for years been the career incentive above all others in law – the long-term goal that underpins the business model of the legal profession.

But as the volatility of the global economy continues, leading many law firms to cut back on their partnership promotions and restructure existing partners, there is mounting evidence that junior lawyers are becoming less focused on the dream of equity.

Legal Week polled associates on their attitudes to partnership and career progression, receiving responses from 216 junior lawyers. The findings show a pragmatic, albeit pessimistic, outlook on the career options for aspiring lawyers.

Much of the cynicism is related to the promotion track. Forty-six percent of respondents thought that the way partner promotions at their firm were decided was ‘not always’ fair, while 15% felt decisions were generally wrong, compared with just 8% that believed decisions surrounding entry to the partnership were just. A further 31% felt the process for promoting partners was ‘probably’ fair.

“There are two things that you have to remember when looking at how fair partnership promotions are. First, you have to look at what the market is doing. In the boom years I’m sure that anyone who was up for promotion to the partnership would have got it, but the problem is that the market does not allow for expansion now in the way it did,” says one associate with six years’ post-qualification experience (PQE) at a UK top 20 firm.

“And, second, you have to accept that there is an element of luck in terms of the area you work in and who your mentor is.”

When asked whether they thought they had a clear view about what they needed to do to make partner, 11% of associates said ‘yes’, 44% responded ‘sort of’ and 45% said ‘no’.

However, one junior lawyer responding to the poll rejects this seemingly negative review, suggesting that it is more important for associates to focus on the here and now. “Clarity on what it takes to make partner is something that differs between associates, but I also think that until you reach a certain point, it’s more important to focus on what you’re doing as an associate and how to improve yourself in that role than looking too far ahead,” says a three-year PQE associate at a magic circle firm.

Unsurprisingly, with the packages on offer for equity partners, remuneration was identified as the main driver for making partner by associates, with 48% of respondents marking it out as their primary motivation to seek partner status, while 20% said that for them, it was about being seen as successful. Better work and more responsibility was selected by 18% of respondents, and a further 14% cited ‘other’ reasons for wanting to join the partnership.

Interestingly, when asked about alternatives to partnership such as of counsel roles, the survey participants were fairly evenly split in their views, with 28% seeing it as a ‘waste of time’, 33% believing it to be ‘a good idea, but not for me’, and 39% stating that they would be ‘happy to go down this route’.

In many ways, it seems firms are trying to distract associates away from focusing too much on partnership, which can be handed out as much for market factors as personal merit.

However, one respondent argues that this is just a practical way of weeding out the weak candidates from the strong, commenting: “Partnership is still as coveted as it was in the 80s and 90s, it’s just that firms are much bigger now with many more partners, making it difficult for them to make up too many more each year.

“Law firms would be better placed if future partners were groomed from a much earlier stage in their career, as they were traditionally in smaller practices. This would (a) mean that those who are partnership material are better positioned when the opportunity arises but it would also mean (b) that those who are unlikely to make partnership at their current firm but have partnership aspirations can find themselves a firm to better suit their ambitions.”

Another respondent adopts a more cynical view, commenting: “I used to think I wanted partnership, but now I do not. This is principally because I don’t think the rewards on offer are worth the hassle of getting and then the hassle of keeping partnership.

“I look at my more senior colleagues and don’t want their exhaustion, obesity, alcoholism, paranoia, loneliness, etc. And I certainly don’t want to be a slave to a BlackBerry. If that means I’ll be a 50-year-old assistant on £50,000, so be it. I’ll still have done better than my family and schoolmates.”

Other trends to emerge from the survey show that 26% of associates think corporate is the easiest practice area to make partner in, while 44% argue that it makes no difference. Banking and finance was voted as the easiest practice to make partner in by 8% of respondents.

When questioned about the differences between firms, 52% of associates thought the expectation of partners ‘definitely’ differed between UK top 50 firms, with only 5% believing that there is ‘no difference’, while 23% said there was ‘a little difference’ and 20% thought that ‘maybe’ there were distinctions.

The wrong kind of person

As well as identifying the differences between firms, associates were also worried about diversity within UK law firm partnerships. Discussions around this issue have resulted in schemes such as PRIME – a social mobility initiative launched by 23 major law firms in September last year, which will see participating firms provide an annual number of work experience placements to eligible students that is equivalent to 50% of their trainee intake.

However, the good intentions do not seem to have made much impact on those currently vying for partnership, with only 1% of survey respondents stating they are very confident that steps being taken to improve diversity through schemes such as PRIME will be effective and a 54% majority stating that such schemes will ‘probably not’ be effective. Only 31% said diversity measures like this could ‘possibly’ make an impact, and 14% said that they ‘definitely’ would not.

“It is positive that the legal profession is taking steps to improve diversity, but I think you have to appreciate that it’s going to be a slow burner,” comments one five-year PQE magic circle associate.

Survey respondents were also cynical about the opportunities for women to make partner. One survey participant comments: “There is still a lot of discrimination at City law firms against women, especially women who have children before making partnership, even when they work full time and put in the same hours as male colleagues. Strangely, if a woman makes partner and then has kids, this does not kill her career in the same way.”

Another area that has been flagged by a number of junior lawyers as a concern, which was not covered in the survey, is the lack of transparency about why some associates on the partnership track do not make it at the end.

It is commonly known that institutions such as Slaughter and May have a very clear policy of ‘make it or leave’, and therefore give people early indications as to whether they are likely to make the cut. But for those that look set to receive the magic handshake only to somehow end up with a consolatory slap on the back, many associates feel there is a lack of communication.

One three-year PQE associate from a US firm in the City sums this up, saying: “One thing that is quite unclear to associates is why, when certain people appear to be going up the partnership track, they don’t get it. I know that there are a lot of people that go for it and not everyone can get it, but I think sometimes it can be down to the amount of effort partner mentors put into helping their candidates.”

As achieving partnership gets ever harder, it seems firms may actually start to find that the problem is not the overflow of those up for the job, but the number of junior lawyers that aren’t prepared to make the sacrifices anymore – or, as one survey respondent puts it: “If you compare the costs in terms of work/life balance and the actual, tangible rewards of being a partner, it is clear that partnership is not worth setting as your career goal.”

Losing its lustre – the fading draw of partnership

If this poll shows ambivalence among associates about partnership and concerns about how the process works, earlier research bears out that the remoteness of partners and tough demands made of senior lawyers are turning junior lawyers away from the traditional career goal.

Legal Week Intelligence’s annual Employee Satisfaction Report, which rates the job satisfaction of associates, has in recent years underlined the falling popularity of partnership. The 2010 report found just 38% of respondents citing partnership at their own firm as their prime career goal, a figure that fell to 29% for female respondents. The figure has fallen sharply since 2008, when it was 50%.

The 2011 report found that satisfaction levels with partnership prospects had dropped sharply, from 6.3 out of 10 to just 5.6. Satisfaction with partnership prospects was the second-lowest rated criterion out of 37 separate criteria in the report, despite being rated as one of the most important for junior lawyers.

Cynical about partnership – reasons associates gave for rejecting the career dream

  • “The role of partner has changed significantly over the last 10 years and I now see it predominantly as a business development role as opposed to a legal work/management role. This is very unattractive to me, so I am considering a move in-house as an alternative.”
  • “Junior partners are not rewarded particularly well when compared to senior associates’ salaries, while at the same time being under huge billing pressure without much support from more senior partners.”
  • “Where I work, the vast majority of new partners have been lateral hires, which sends out a very bad message. [And] as a married woman in her early 30s hoping to start a family, partnership is so late these days that I am not willing to take the biological risk of waiting another couple of years – and I do believe that as soon as I have a baby, I will not be considered for partnership.”
  • “The partnership business model is based on Victorian legal principles and is rapidly becoming useless for international and modern law firms. Sadly, to make the change for the better, the partners themselves would have to give up certain rights, so it’s like turkeys voting for Christmas.”
  • “There are no opportunities for partnership and a widening gulf between the haves and have nots. Much of this is about timing and firms have no idea how to address the issue of a disengaged associate base. Most moves they do make tend to make things worse, not better.”
  • “I am not particularly interested in becoming a partner at my firm as, although the additional money and benefits would be attractive, the move away from legal practice to firm management is not. I am also not interested in the political machinations of my firm, which seem to be a primary focus for many of the partners here.”
  • “It really feels like the ladder has been pulled up, as firms are not really expanding and, despite the economic climate, are still obsessed with increasing profits.”
  • “I’m astounded people still expect solicitors to take up partnership but refuse to be transparent about the financial position of the firm. I am also astounded that people will still accept partnership without that information.”