Who’d be a partner?

June 13, 2012

No money, no prestige, no security – why being a partner is rubbisher than ever

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To become a top partner in today’s legal profession, you need to have psychological issues. Or at least that’s the message coming out of the recent woeful story of Christopher Grierson.

The former partner has just been jailed for three years for fiddling travel expenses to the tune of a whopping £1.27m. A feature in The Lawyer described it as a ‘sophisticated fraud’. But it doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like he just made an awful lot of false claims over four years – and his firm didn’t notice.

He got away with it for so long because he was brilliant at his job: he worked incredibly hard and billed to the hilt. Who would want to stamp on that kind of parade?

To its credit the firm did express concerns about his work levels. But partners are typically expected to commit huge amounts of time to their firms.

To raise the alarm, it’s probably safe to surmise Grierson must have been working silly hours. But still no-one seriously considered it to be a sign of psychiatric illness. (His defence claimed that Grierson was manically depressive.) The reason is simple. At partner level, extreme workaholic behaviour is the norm.

Grierson has lost everything, including his marriage. But the legal profession will likely take nothing from this salutary tale, least of all any responsibility.

Firms will discount it as a one-off case of greed and duplicity and carry on as normal. That translates to chiefly rewarding those who put inhuman amounts of time in – and worrying about the fall out sometime never.

So given the often brutal expectations, why on earth should anyone actually want to become a partner?

The money

The promise of a whole bucket load of cash probably helps. Grierson was reportedly on an annual profit share of over £700,000. But if you don’t actually have time to enjoy the money or spend quality time with your family or friends, you might wonder if a few £100k less might suffice.

Besides, the cash cow of partnership isn’t what it used to be. Recent times have seen the demise of several high-profile firms – most recently, of course, Dewey & LeBoeuf. Some partners – especially those on guaranteed profit-share deals – have undoubtedly done OK despite their firm’s failing fortunes.

But there are reports that some others have had to sell their homes to pay the taxman, because profit shares fell below expectation. No doubt they’ve not been left destitute, but it’s hardly the kind of wealth management prospective partners anticipate.

With ongoing economic uncertainty, many other firms have called in additional capital contributions from their partners. That means an increased financial risk for partners, who now need to be particularly clear on how (and when) they will get their capital repaid.

In this climate, it’s not surprising if some associates conclude the more uncertain rewards do not sufficiently compensate for the work levels and increased financial obligations.

Prestige and ownership

After years of slogging to impress the partnership, the offer to join the gang must be hugely satisfying. Finally, it’s a chance to reap the rewards and bask in the glory of a job well done.

Well that might be the case, if it weren’t for the fact that partners still have to work like demons. Plus there’s the additional expectation of building a successful practice, a challenge made even harder by these more competitive times.

And if it goes wrong, partners can’t expect any sympathy. Just look at the fall-out from firms that have dissolved in recent years. Partners at failed firms have been blamed for everything from sheer greed in drawing too much profit, to failing to go down with the ship.

Even those enjoying partnership in a more stable firm can’t rest on their laurels for long. Because there is now the ever-present threat of de-equitisation bundled up with a hefty dose of personal humiliation. Just because you’ve made it doesn’t mean you’re there to stay.

Lack of alternative

Not surprisingly then, many young lawyers are looking at the partnership ladder and deciding they’d rather not climb it. Unfortunately, this is where many of today’s lawyers are likely to come unstuck. Because the alternative options are not brilliant.

Some firms have introduced roles that are genuine alternatives to equity partnership. But they remain rare and, worse, can smack of a failure to make the grade.

Going in-house is an increasingly credible option as the jobs have gradually become more prestigious, powerful and highly paid. And, even better, there remains the promise of some work-life balance in the corporate legal field.  But in-house legal departments remain relatively small and the very best jobs are few and far between.

Others might consider joining a smaller firm, or an alternative business structure – which are likely to become more interesting as new legal business models emerge. But it is still early days for these kinds of firm, and no-one can be really sure what long-term opportunities they offer.

That leaves a lot of talented lawyers stranded – hoping for a partnership offer that they might not even want, if only to progress their careers. And if they don’t get it they think they’ve failed even if it might actually be the best outcome in terms of leading any kind of a normal personal life.

The first firm that can truly offer an exciting – and sane – alternative to partnership may do very well indeed. CP

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