Denton Wilde Sapte is the latest firm to promote its first round of senior associates to a partnership alternative, with real estate senior associates Jane Miles and Nick Darby taking up the new role of managing associate, as first reported on TheLawyer.com (29 April).
Dentons makes much of the fact that the pressure to create this role came from the bottom up. This and other initiatives, such as the creation of the role of 'lawyer' (or assistant) and greater transparency in terms of what is expected at each rung of the career ladder, followed a full-scale career review undertaken by the firm at the end of last year.
Creating alternatives to partnership may be partly an exercise in retention, but it is also client-driven, as it enables Dentons to make a statement about the seniority of the lawyer managing a particular transaction.
After all, as Miles points out, fee-earning tasks go "hand-in-glove" with the strategic and managerial responsibilities that she is going to take up. "It's not a soft option or a halfway house," she insists.
Head of real estate Richard Budge says the expectations he holds of Miles and Darby are similar to that of partner. But the nature of those expectations on Miles and Darby will differ because of the contrasting locations and composition of their practice teams.
Some of Miles's remit will be managerial, providing support to the two partners in her Milton Keynes construction team in overseeing the team of five more junior lawyers.
"There'll be more day-to-day management, more appraisals, more supervision of junior members of the team, as well as the blue sky stuff," she explains.
But Darby, who works in the larger London commercial real estate team, will focus on developing his client management and marketing role.
Both Darby and Miles stress that making the partnership could still be on their radar and that they do not see the managing associate role as the end of the line for their career ambitions. "Nothing's ruled in or ruled out," says Darby.
Nevertheless, Miles thinks that the fall in interest among some associates in becoming partners could be driven by the current economic climate.
"Lawyers are business-savvy people," says Miles. "There's a lot of responsibility and financial liability in the role of partner."
But there is a risk that the managing associate role could be seen as an attempt to pull up the drawbridge to the partnership by selling hard-working senior associates a version of 'partnership-lite'.
Budge claims this is not the case at Dentons, pointing to the fact that only two managing associates were made up this year, as against 12 partners.
"It's not a way of fobbing people off for not making partnership," he insists. "We recognise different combinations of circumstances."
But the real estate head would not comment on whether the current partner to managing associate promotion ratio is indicative of things to come.
"We don't know fully how many people there'll be, but we don't think they'll be given out like sweeties," he says.