Directors: stopgap or viable alternative?

Directors: stopgap or viable alternative?A drive to improve profitability led Cobbetts to reform the partnership structure last year, abolishing the role of salaried partner while tightening the equity.

But the “almighty chasm between the role of associate and partner” made it necessary for the firm to establish an extra rung on the career ladder, according to real estate partner Darren Hamer.

Hamer was among the first group of what Cobbetts calls ‘legal directors’ to be made up to partner on 1 July 2007. There are now 10 legal directors.

Like the managing associate role created by Denton Wilde Sapte (The Lawyer, 12 May), legal directors undertake greater managerial and business development responsibilities than what is usually expected of associates, in addition to regular fee- earning work.

Managing partner Michael Shaw says: “We see directors having active participation in the business such as attending key client meetings and taking part in strategic consultation processes. “

The new director role is critical to meeting the longer term strategic needs of the business, encouraging talented young lawyers to take more of a leadership role and rewarding them with a share in its success.”

Construction partner Penny Tate, who like Hamer had a brief stint as a director last year, says the director role is an attempt to “distinguish between the associate and partnership”.

But being a relatively new role, the lines between director and associate on the one hand and partner on the other can be a little blurred. “As an associate I was basically running the team in Leeds anyway,” says Tate, adding that her responsibilities did not change that much when she became a director.

Director in the employment department Keith Land says: “I don’t think it’s fully developed yet.” He points out that, although the firm aspires towards directors participating in formal partnership meetings, this does not happen at present. Nevertheless, Land believes the new role gives him an opportunity to have more of an inside track on what is happening in the business than he did in his previous role as an associate. “

You’re privy to a great deal more information than you were before and have a greater ability to influence it,” he says. For Hamer and Tate, directorship was a stopover on the way to partnership. Both were directors for less than a year and always hoped to become partners. Similarly, Land says he hopes not to remain a director. “Rather than as an alternative, it’s an intermediate practice,” he adds. Hamer does not know anyone who admits to not setting their sights above that of director. “People don’t say it outside four walls,” he says.

This contrasts with the firm’s official line. Shaw claims that directorship is capable of being a long-term role in itself and should not be seen as a mere stepping stone.

The gap between the official line and the reality reveals that if lawyers see longterm directors as unambitious partners then Cobbetts’ claim for the role to be a viable alternative to the partnership will fail. It risks being seen as second-best, rather than as good as the rest.