How to make the farewells fonder

Collegiality, partnership, teamwork, the spirit of togetherness… these are the principles that most right-thinking law firms like to think lie at the core of their partnerships.

But in these days of increasingly corporate-style management, toughening profitability targets and unprecedented liquidity in the partner market, some partners are finding that life gets tough and that collegiality can be a wafer-thin veneer when the chips are down.

Take a partner; let’s call him ‘John’. Offered a position by a mid-sized City firm and keen to join on the basis of taking clients along with him, John accepts the job but mistimes his resignation in the middle of a big deal, thinking that the deal will be done and dusted by the time he actually leaves. His law firm gets nasty. It hauls him into a room and tells him in no uncertain terms that if he leaves, it will fight tooth and nail to hang on to that client and make his life hell. In essence, it bullies him into staying in order to hang on to a precious client. John panics and declines the offer. The mid-sized City firm that made the offer is understandably hacked off. So our John is left with a bunch of people who know he really wants out, he is now under increased pressure and there is less likelihood of taking the client if he ever decides to leave, as the firm starts to ‘corporatise’ the relationship.

Perhaps it is inevitable that in a partnership structure, rooted so much in relationships between individuals, people should take things personally when someone leaves. But in moving to a corporate structure of management, one might have thought that firms would be also taking a more corporate view of resignations.

In the US model, there are usually no restrictive covenants on clients (the concept is tricky to defend in any event, as it infers that clients are possessions of the firm rather than individuals with free will, who may choose to spend their legal budgets as they wish) and partners move freely and often immediately from one firm to another.

Firms are run on this basis, acknowledging that bits of the business will move around from time to time, but that other businesses will join. Swings and roundabouts or, in essence, a more modular approach. UK firms, in contrast, seem keen to hang on to their restrictions: long notice periods, client restrictive covenants, ‘poison pills’ regarding team moves and so on. Ironically, many US firms seem to have a more collegiate feel than UK ones.

Of course, having no covenants or notice periods can have its downside. ‘Jane’, now in a lockstep firm, tells of her previous outfit, where there were no such restrictions. “Effectively, the highest billers in the firm held the management to ransom, and other, lower-billing partners were often bullied about their billings. It was awful,” she says.

In matters of the heart, sensible doctrine goes that if a relationship is not working for one party, by definition it is not working for the other.

Perhaps it is time UK firms started to have more courage. Clients are not possessions. Relationships come to an end. People move on and learn and other relationships begin. Better to end on a high note, with good wishes and future referral business, than in bitter squabbles with people you used to call your friends. Clients, by the way, are never impressed.

But perhaps it is also time for partners to refuse to be browbeaten into staying when they have decided to leave. After all, why would you really want to be in business with a bunch of people who will treat you so badly when it comes to the crunch?

Mark Brandon is a specialist in partner recruitment at First Counsel