Partnership down

A career in private practice usually holds one
central aspiration to become a partner. The 2004 partnership round has just completed. Gemma Charles assesses the trends among the Citys top firms and your chances of making the grade

Overall the top 10 law firms made up fewer partners in 2004 compared with the year before. Firms made up 170 partners this year and 174 last year.

All of the magic circle recorded drops in their partnership promotions apart from Linklaters, which promoted 12 more partners than the previous year and, with 31 promotions, made up the most partners this year. Six others had modest increases, but caution is clearly the watchword and in most cases these were rises of only one to two partners.

Lovells promoted 15 partners, two fewer than last year. The firms senior partner Andrew Walker says: We believe in investing in our core practice areas, wherever client demand and the talent of the individuals concerned come together to create a compelling business case. But we are very careful about whom we elect, with a rigorous selection process culminating in a partnership vote quite a hurdle for the individuals concerned.

DLA appointed more new partners this year, 18 compared with 14 in 2003, although this years list did not include any in London. However, in the past financial year, DLA has been on a hiring spree, taking on at least five partners for the London office.

The firm also displayed the fruits of its breakneck European expansion through its recent merger with Netherlands firm SchutGrosheide, by promoting five European lawyers, including two in Amsterdam.

Allen & Overy made up eight less partners, going from 29 to 21, while Clifford Chance, previously the largest partner promoter, cut its promotions to 18, from 31 in 2003. It seems to be getting particularly hard to make your way up the greasy pole at Clifford Chance. As well as cutting its partner promotions last year it extended its salaried partner term from two to three years, causing anxiety among younger partners with their heart set on moving into the prized equity status.
On average, partners are made up at around 7 to 10 years post-qualification experience. Richard Turnor, the head of Allen & Overys professional partnership group, says: I think there has been a trend for people to be made up later. When I became a partner I was 29. Nowadays that would never happen.

But although he says that young lawyers must wait longer before entering the partnership, the wait is considerably sweeter due to the high salaries that are paid to assistants and trainees these days. I was earning half as much as my girlfriend back then who was a secretary, says Turnor. He says that salaries are now more in line with similar City professions.
Pointedly, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, where new partners dropped to 16 from last years 23, has failed to make up any lawyers in Asia. The firm is currently conducting a reorganisation of the region, where there are expected to be redundancies. Freshfields is 100 per cent equity, meaning that while other firms can balance lower Asian revenues with local or salaried partners, Freshfields cannot, because to be a partner at Freshfields means joining the equity.

Partners made up in Asia went down from 14 to 11 and we can expect even fewer partners made up in Asia for the short-term, despite signs of a pick-up in the Asian economy, as a number of US and UK firms have scaled back or withdrawn from the region. In April, Denton Wilde Sapte announced that it was to take the drastic step of axing its offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo in a bid to bolster profitability. Dentons chairman James Dallas said at the time: There are better business opportunities in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East and the CIS.

There were few big swings one way or the other in terms of the different practice areas. One of the most significant leaps was in projects where the amount of new partners tripled. Corporate, the largest practice area of most firms, remains steady with 43 corporate partners made up this year, just one less than last year. Banking/finance, the second largest area, is down from 40 to 32. And in EU/competition only three partners were made up.

Partner at 28

Becoming a partner at a City firm is the ambition of many a law student and the shining light that keeps them going as they move through their degrees, LPCs and training contracts. If you are good enough, and in the right place at the right time, there is no reason why this cannot be realised.

However, it is generally accepted that this status is conferred upon you in your mid-thirties. The first Lawyer 2B attitude survey of 200 students found that 40 per cent of students expect to become a partner when they are aged between 31 to 35. An ambitious minority 5 per cent expected to gain the coveted status between the ages of 25 to 30. This is difficult, but not impossible, as the example of 28-year-old Clare Algar, who is joining the partnership of Collyer-Bristow this month, shows.

Algar, who boasts just three years post-qualification experience, always had it in her mind that she wanted to be a partner sooner rather than later after reading law at Cambridge and gaining her LPC at the College of Law.

All of the people I was at Cambridge with went to the big City firms. I knew I didnt want to do a training contract in the City. It struck me that if I went to a good smaller commercial firm I would be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, she says. Im the predominant fee-earner on several cases that I dont think I would be dealing with if I were at a big City firm, she adds.
Algar says that her friends from university are still looking at six years as assistants. Ive got a very able girlfriend at one of the big City firms whos said she just wont make partnership as the firm has enough partners.

Intellectual property (IP) is the practice area that Algar has chosen to specialise in and she believes that opting for a niche area contributed to her meteoric rise.
Support from the firm has also been a crucial factor in helping Algar move so swiftly up the ranks. Collyer-Bristow encouraged her to read an IP-related LLM part-time. I do feel its upped my game; my legal knowledge did increase, she says.

Also, the firm allowed her to attend conferences and become an active member of the International Trademark Association, of which she is a sub-chair. This, she says, has provided valuable networking opportunities with clients.

It is inevitable in a profession still largely dominated by fifty-something men, that the promotion of a young woman to partnership would cause some ripples.
Algar says: Most of the raised eyebrows and there have been some have been from partners and fee-earners from other firms. She says that lawyers at Collyer-Bristow have been supportive of the move.