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Law firms quasi-feudal partnership structures have not traditionally been conducive to democratic ideals. In a typical setup, the managing partner sits on the throne alongside their right-hand man, the senior partner.
The duo is accountable to and elected by its noble peers the rest of the partnership -which jointly owns, shares and administers the kingdoms profits and property. By the same token, decisions on its future are made by the partnership.
Below them, the populous fee-earning serf underclasses toil for fixed incomes. But these individuals never own the land, and year after year the profits of the fee-earners labours are passed up to their masters. The only way out of this cycle is to clamber up the slippery steps of the career ladder and be promoted to the partnership, where hopefully your voice might be finally heard.
But the picture is gradually changing. Partner Scott Cochrane, who sits on Herbert Smiths associate forum, believes strongly in free expression, although he is also aware of its limits within a firm. His line to associates is: Im not saying Im necessarily going to agree with you, but tell it to me as straight as you can anyway.
Today associate forums can be found at a number of firms. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, for instance, has the Associate Engagement Group (AEG); SJ Berwin has the Associate Solicitors Forum; Herbert Smith the Associate Discussion Group; and Addleshaw Goddard has Project CAFE (Communication Amongst Fee Earners).
Lovells, meanwhile, has recently started up liaison groups for associates, senior associates and of counsel, while Norton Rose has also just introduced an associate communication group.
These groups are generally made up of elected associate representatives for each major practice area or of a number who stand for the associate body as a whole.
They tend to meet at regular intervals, often monthly or quarterly, with one or more partners who are often influential within the firm, to discuss issues or concerns that have been raised by their electorate. The liaison partners then feed prominent issues up to the larger partnership and the liaison associates email detailed minutes of the meetings to their constituents.
Senior associate Dan Burton and associates Kate Burns and Giles Pratt explain how Freshfields forum was born. Following elections, a central group was set up, which began to canvass associates for anonymous suggestions. More than 200 diverse views flooded in by email. These were then sifted into categories, the first of which was headed Quick fixes.
None of the suggestions were radical the majority were straightforward and were implemented quickly.
Thanks to the AEG, Freshfields now uses recyclable mugs for coffee, firm laptops now come with Wi-Fi, the BlackBerry messaging phones have been upgraded to the latest state-of-the-art model, more bicycle parking spaces have been added, cumbersome canteen payment touch screens are now more user-friendly, free evening food has been introduced, and in perhaps the most visible change Freshfields tired reception area is now in the process of being refurbished.
Many associate groups at other City firms have made similar changes. Herbert Smiths group has, among other things, lobbied successfully for better support for cycling to work, a more comfortable dressdown policy during hot summer months and better canteen food. Herbert Smiths Cochrane comments: Free fruit [for staff] is our current discussion du jour. Herbert Smith associate Philip Beer adds: Some [changes] may seem small and trivial, but its the little things that get changed that can make a real difference.
There can be little doubt that the creation of associate groups is a win-win situation. Most changes suggested are reasonable and not difficult to implement. And giving staff a say in their working environment is a morale-booster.
Associate focus groups, however, aim to be more than just cheap and effective alternatives to hiring a workplace improvement consultant or feng shui guru. Larger issues are also being tackled, many relating to benefits and work-life balance.
For example, Herbert Smiths group has been involved in a consultation on bonuses; Linklaters group has introduced an emergency childcare scheme for parents; Ashursts committee was involved in restructuring career paths at the firm; SJ Berwins team has effected clarification in the firms sabbatical scheme that officially allows six weeks of unpaid leave after five years with the firm; and Freshfields associates are now involved in more client pitches and trainee interviews.
Despite this, there remains a very real limit to how far associates voices can carry. Allen & Overy (A&O) is one of just a few firms where an associate now sits directly on the weekly management committee meetings. These are made up of influential practice area heads and the heads of various support functions, such as HR and IT, and are usually chaired by the managing partner.
Important managerial decisions are made at the meetings, affecting work-life balance, business development activities, training and international secondments. However, responsibility does not usually stretch so far as to include discussions on the bigger picture of firmwide strategy.
Due to the high-level nature of the business conducted, input by the associate attending the meeting (currently six-year qualified lawyer Graham Knight) is often more passive. There are also currently no elections held for the position, and to a certain extent Knight can therefore only be
nominally representative of all associates.
If an issue comes up in the meeting that directly affects associates, Knights input is sought and he sometimes liaises informally with some associates to poll their views. The contents of meetings are also generally highly confidential and Knight is not permitted to feed back most of what is discussed to his peers.
Nevertheless, A&Os initiative is an intriguing development that is indicative of the growing interest of firms managers in the views of their associates, who begin to wield greater influence internally as they gain experience and their client winning responsibilities increase. It is hopefully a model that other firms could seek to emulate in the future.
Herbert Smith associate Beer thinks important strides have been made recently when it comes to management communicating with associates. Its certainly got a lot better in the years Ive been an assistant, he says. I wouldnt necessarily say its perfect, but its definitely got a lot better in the years Ive been an assistant.
But he adds: I think one has to be realistic about the fact that there are a number of management decisions that associates will not have an impact on. But more generally from what I hear from my friends [at other firms], firms are realising the importance of keeping their staff informed.
His point is a valid one, even if it ultimately remains the case that it is the job of the partners to manage the firm they own, while fee-earners bring the money in.
That said, the lines between the two are slowly starting to blur. Lovells, for instance, has recently mooted giving the vote to non-equity partners who do not own a stake in the firm.
Whether this will result in universal suffrage at large law firms in the near future is doubtful, but the first seeds of increased democracy have long been planted, so there is no telling where it
will go. As we are repeatedly told by governments the world over, people who have tasted freedom soon develop a ravenous appetite for more of it.