Is this the end for Big Law?

Associates do not want to be Partner:  is this the end for Big Law?

LexisNexis’ recent survey of more than 500 UK law firms has found that just 25% of Associates surveyed do want to be Partner in the next five years.  63% of Big Law leaders believe that Associates are less interested in being made up to Partner and 43% of Associates do not see their future at their current firm.

Hamsters in their wheels, Senior Associates are integral to Big Law.  Without them, Big Law cannot function, at least until AI is ready to take over.  And when AI does arrive, law firm leaders will need tech savvy Associates to manage the tech on behalf of clients.

Traditionally, Big Law has attempted to motivate Senior Associates to work hard and stay put by dangling the carrot of partnership infront of them.  But Senior Associates now want something different and Big Law will have to adapt.

71% of Associates told LexisNexis that they place work-life balance in the top three priorities when looking for a new role, with a higher salary falling back into fourth place.

Career progression was still further down the list, which raises the question, how are Associates perceiving partnership compared to previous generations?

Of all Associates surveyed, only 25% wanted to be a Partner in the next five years and within Big Law, that figure dropped to 22%.  Big Law leaders believe that the reason behind this is, not a lack of ambition, but a demand for a better work-life balance.

Associates are no longer prepared to make the sacrifices required to be on the partnership track; sacrifices made without the guarantee of partnership years down the line.  Long, anti-social hours, stress, the risk of burn-out, business development expectation and unrealistic billing targets are making Associates think that this wasn’t why they decided to become a lawyer.

Although being well paid is still important, the kudos of being a Partner has been diluted by greater priority being associated to work-life balance, a compelling business strategy, superb training and for Associates to have a seat at the table and be heard.

High flying Associates not wanting to become Partners is a problem for Big Law.  Senior Associates on expensive salaries may not be motivated to interrupt their social lives to smooze a potential client.  Initially, Partnerships will see this as beneficial to their Profits Per Equity Partner, with hard working Senior Associates running feverishly to keep the hamster’s wheel turning.  But a lack of new Partners producing new, better clients will prevent Big Law growth and ultimately lead to its decline.  As Senior Associates stall, they will form a blockade preventing junior colleagues rising through the ranks.  In the short to medium term, this is a serious issue for Big Law.

Interestingly, those surveyed are not about to abandon private practice for inhouse.  75% want to stay in private practice, with some hoping to be promoted to non-Partner positions in the near future.  Big Law has introduced non-Partnership tracks, with ‘Legal Director’ or ‘Of Counsel’ job titles being introduced as an alternative to becoming a Partner.  More autonomy, supervisory opportunities and a greater say in the direction of the firm is sometimes promised.

I am not going to say that Big Law has got it totally wrong.  That wouldn’t be fair.  There are some amazing lawyers and support staff in Big Law that enable them to work on high quality work for huge clients.  And there must always be a sacrifice.  You cannot manage multi-billion dollar, multi-jurisdictional litigation working 9am to 5pm and taking an hour for lunch.  Massive teams of lawyers need systems and processes to organise the chaos.  Huge, slow turning ships are expensive to fuel and it is understandable that there is pressure on Partners to keep the fires burning.  The question is at what cost.

I made the jump from Big Law to establishing Ridgemont, a boutique construction law firm, eight years ago.  I struggled with Big Law’s rigidity, the lack of space to be creative and the lack of entrepreneurism in an environment where aging lawyers became the executive. I saw the red-faced, high blood pressured Partners getting rich; but count the divorces.  There is a cost to Partnership in Big Law.  Of course, for some it is worth it, they excel, they can manage the stress and juggle the BD and fee earning.  But it is not for everyone.

So when I designed Ridgemont, I wanted to ensure the same quality of advice and service levels that I was trained to provide by Big Law, but, by staying small and agile, creating a firm that allowed everyone’s voice to be heard, encouraged and supported fee earners to contribute to business development (not abdicating it to them) and moving away from the focus on annual billable hours to a wider, more holistic appreciation of that individual’s contribution to the business as a whole. 

By avoiding a partnership structure, we have a flat organisation structure, that means everyone has their say and there are no office politics.  Everybody is appreciated and heard.  Our environment is supportive, not competitive.  When colleagues need help meeting their KPIs, we help them.  And although we provide high quality advice, doing great work, for some of the biggest names in the construction sector, we ensure that our team have their lunch break and generally do not work evenings or weekends.  Finally, we make time for them to learn, contribute to business development… and breathe.

24 Greville Street, London, EC1N 8SS

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