Brave few buck the promotions trend as majority plump for consolidation
26 April 2010 | By Gavriel Hollander
This year’s round of partner promotions reveals a market in which law firms are still cautious about promoting talent. However, there is some relief in the associate ranks, with numbers generally stabilising after tailing off dramatically this time last year.
With around half of the top 20 UK firms having shown their hands, most look to have consolidated their positions against last year’s, with a few even upping their numbers.
Herbert Smith is one of those to have increased its new partner levels most significantly. The top 10 firm has promoted 18 to partner, five more than last year. Of those, 11 are based in London, 50 per cent up on 2009.
Lovells has also bucked the trend, promoting 21 associates, more than in any year since 2007, in advance of its merger with Hogan & Hartson. That number is up by two on last year, but the number promoted in its London office has dropped from six to five.
Lovells senior partner John Young said this year’s figure was not related to the impending tie-up with the US firm, but is rather about “striking a balance” between the competing demands of a difficult market and the need to reward high-performing lawyers.
“I think the market’s stretching in two directions,” he explained. “On the one hand everyone’s still being cautious about business prospects. But the environment doesn’t change the number of good people who are capable of achieving partnership. There’s a need to nurture good people, so you have to strike a balance between that and the fact that it’s hard to predict the rate of a recovery.”
Of the two magic circle firms to have revealed their promotions so far, both Allen & Overy (A&O) and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer made up 18 apiece. Freshfields’ figure represents a small recovery from last year, when only 14 new partners were made up. A&O, on the other hand, made up two fewer than last year.
The real discrepancy between the two big hitters, however, comes when looking at UK numbers. Of Freshfields’ new partners, six will be based in London as opposed to just two last year. For A&O, only two are in the City. Last year six of the 20 were UK-based.
A&O managing partner Wim Dejonghe said the geographical spread of the new breed reflects that of the firm as a whole.
“Over half of the firm’s turnover continues to be generated outside the UK and two-thirds of our work is cross-border,” he said. “These promotions are a reflection of our continued commitment to strengthening our international network and investing in the future of the business.”
Eversheds saw the most significant tail-off in promotion numbers after managing to be one of the few firms to record an increase last time round. Only 19 partners were made up as opposed to 32 in 2009 and 30 in 2008. Eight of the new partners were UK-based over the three years.
Norton Rose was one firm that reflected the overall trend by staying flat against last year, after 2009’s drop-off in numbers. The firm also promoted the same number in London as last year, four, but made up two partners in Australia for the first time.
“Australia’s been where the big change is,” said Norton Rose chief executive Peter Martyr, referring to the firm’s tie-up with Deacons, which gave it a major presence in the jurisdiction.
Slaughter and May, meanwhile, played true to its conservative tradition by promoting the fewest number of partners of any of the top 10 firms. As last year, Slaughters made up two, with only one in the UK.
With some firms continuing to recruit laterals in large numbers, there is some tension in the market between the need to push internal talent and bring in fresh blood from outside.
Lovells’ Young added: “The balance between laterals and internal promotions needs to reflect how many good people firms happen to have internally.
“In our own case we’ve had a number of people who are good candidates who we’ve had to defer - we’re pleased to have appointed as many as we did.”
Among the fresh-faced associates ready to make the great leap into their firms’ partnerships, Norton Rose head of planning Nigel Hewitson stands out.
Hewitson, one of four promoted to partner in the firm’s London office, has taken an unusual route to the top, having spent 13 years in-house at the London Borough of Harrow before becoming legal director at English Heritage.
Hewitson only moved into private practice in 2006, nearly two decades after qualifying. He said his promotion is a sign that the door to partnership at the top firms is not closed to those outside the Oxbridge elite.
“There’s a danger of recruiting only the top academics from the top universities,” he commented. “You often get the same sort of person.”
Hewitson, who studied philosophy and politics at Manchester University, added that his success may also open the way for more appointments from the public sector.
“I hope it gives the lie to the idea that lawyers who work in the public sector aren’t as good [as those in private practice],” he said. “There’s a sense in which a lot of private practice lawyers consider the public sector to be inferior.
“The way to combat that is to prove yourself.”