Having scaled the heights of partnership, especially with one of the large City firms, it must be tempting to sit back and bask in the glory. Although it is a sign that you have arrived, after 10 or more years of serious fee earning, this peak may start to look suspiciously like a plateau from where further progress is hindered by a lack of possibilities within the firm.
Compared to commercial companies, law firms tend to be extremely flat structures, with very few steps between assistant and senior partner.
Having become a partner at around 30, it will become apparent by the time most reach 40 whether they are destined for the top echelons, or whether they have peaked too early and will remain stuck in the ranks of the also-rans.
The David Andrews Partnership, legal consulting division of Grant Thornton, has considerable interest in this area. Head of legal consulting Linda Packard says the problem is self-evident: “Managing the aspirations of partners is a fundamental issue facing firms. After 15 years with the firm, there are not many positions open to a partner.”
But do partners in City firms having a limited shelf life? Should they start looking for a second career at 45? “It depends upon personal circumstances,” says Packard, “but if a partner has not received the recognition of department head that he wanted, there are only a limited number of options open. He may be happy to stay where he is as a fee earner, or he may want to move to another firm where career paths are clearer, or he might just feel that it is time to do something else altogether.”
She adds that when experienced partners move to smaller firms it is not always because of the money: “They often have personal aspirations, and want to move on to positions offering more control and recognition.”
Stuart Benson cited boredom with being a lawyer as his reason for leaving Dibb Lupton Alsop, where he had been a litigation partner, last year. He says he has seen lawyers peaking too early in their careers, having made partner in their 30s. “Young, aspiring lawyers almost always say that their ambition is to become a partner,” he explains. “In many cases they get there, achieve their goal and it is almost anti-climatic.
“What difference does becoming a partner make to the job you are actually doing and the enjoyment you get from doing it? In a sense it has little impact and I am very concerned when someone states that their ambition is to become a partner because it is almost an irrelevance and in that sense a limited ambition.”
Benson's own move, after 25 years as a lawyer, to a second career in crisis-management, is explained by his own philosophy of ambition. He believes the real point is constantly to move forward to face wholly new challenges.
“I find the law as a career slightly inflexible,” he says. One of his concerns, he explains, “is the number of people these days who have two ambitions: first to become partner as soon as possible and then retire as quickly as possible. They are retiring at 50 to 55, and settling down into non-executive roles. Personally, I am full of enthusiasm for my second career and look forward to the challenge of building something new.”
Legal recruitment specialists are often called on to give advice when partners find themselves fairly low down in the promotion queue of experienced lawyers in a firm.
Anthony Tomkins, head of the Charles Fellowes partnership, says: “There are three distinct groups of partners in law firms: the ones who are fast-tracking and moving very well; the ones that are tolerated and have a job for life but are not actually consulted on anything of great importance; and there is a growing bunch of partners who are not going anywhere fast. They are dissatisfied with their firms and their firms are dissatisfied with them.”
Tomkins says this can occur when lawyers fall victim to the huge mismatches between their aspirations and reality. “If they are in their 40s now, they will have qualified in around 1980,” reasons Tomkins. “This means they will have been on an accelerated track through the boom; unfortunately, they may rate themselves higher than they are now worth.”
He says the situation is often made worse by “lawyers who are not too hot on honesty when it comes to themselves. They can easily become deluded and blame their firms, instead of seeing that problems with their career are ultimately their own fault. It is very sad when you have a 45-year-old guy who was once riding on the crest of the wave and now, 10 years later, he is no longer part of the dream and is told that he has had it.”
Simon Janion of Eagan Janion Recruitment believes there are ways to measure a partner's career advancement which have nothing to do with titles or position. “If you said to someone at a Big Five firm that their career has peaked at 40, they would think you did not know the first thing about it,” he says.
“Career growth depends on the continued development and cultivation of clients. The age profiles of clients will reflect a partner's own progress – when a company/commercial lawyer is 40, his clients will be of a similar age and entering the first stages of senior management. If we assume his clients will become managing directors at 50, and the contacts were made at 25, the partner will be 10 years short of his peak at 40.”
But Janion concedes that one of the reasons cited by partners moving from large firms to smaller firms, is the inevitable log-jam of partners all vying for the same one or two vacant positions.
He says: “When good quality partners find that they are number four or five in line and some way from the seat of power in the larger firms, they often seek the personal challenge of head of department at a smaller firm, where perhaps they can build up business in the same way their head of practice did in the past.”
The phenomenon of partner mobility grew during the recession, when firms had to realign themselves and take fairly drastic measures as their priorities changed. Firms, including those in the regions, which had not previously had access to such high calibre partners, snapped them up. This attitude has survived the recession because, according to Janion, “firms have become more flexible and open to developing their business and branching into new areas”.
Partners with their own client-base and expertise are seen as businesses in their own right. When they move or firms merge it is people buying other people's business. This change of philosophy is even characterised by a change in terminology: firms used to talk about bolt-ons to the practice, now they talk of partners “adding value”, and whether this is tangible in terms of new practice areas and new clients or in intangible areas like marketing.
Tomkins thinks this increased sophistication on the part of law firms bodes ill for partners who think they can still operate as big fish in the smaller regional pools.
He says: “There is a tremendous arrogance among a hard core of London partners who think they can still make it in the provinces. Regional firms, on the other hand, do not want London's rejects anymore.
“Other partners are taking lifestyle decisions, such as coming back off equity to a salaried but more secure position, or they are looking to retire earlier. They come to me at 45 and say, 'get me five years more and I'm out of it'. And others are looking to a second career, which is excellent if they manage it but depends more on the partners' personal contacts than what someone like myself can do.”
The situation of partners over 40 feeling disillusioned can perhaps be avoided by taking heed of a consultant's advice.
Tomkins says: “Firms need to manage expectations at a much earlier stage and let partners in their early 30s know that they cannot expect a guaranteed future. And lawyers need to start seeing a partnership for what it is – a journey not a destination. By doing so they will continue to 'add value' to the firm and themselves.”