Children of the revolution

The quasi-feudal partnership structure of law firms has traditionally not always been conducive to democratic ideals.

Under a typical law firm structure the managing partner usually sits on the throne alongside their right-hand man, the senior partner. The duo is accountable to and elected by their noble peers – the rest of the partnership – who jointly own, share and administer the kingdom’s profits and property. On a similar token, decisions on the future of the kingdom 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 finally be heard.

But the picture is gradually changing. Partner Scott Cochrane, who sits on Herbert Smith’s associate forum, believes strongly in free expression, although he is also aware of limits within a firm. His line to associates is: “I’m not saying I’m 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 ‘AEG’, or ‘Associate Engagement Group’, SJ Berwin has the ‘Associate Solicitors Forum’, Herbert Smith the ‘Associate Discussion Group’ and Addleshaw Goddard has ‘Project CAFÉ’ (which stands for ‘communication amongst fee-earners’). Lovells, meanwhile, has recently started up liaison groups for associates, senior associates and of counsel and 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 larger issues up to the 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.

After 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 compiled down into categories. The first category of improvements consisted of so-called ‘quick fixes’. None of the suggestions were radical, the majority were straightforward and most were implemented quickly at the firm.

Thanks to the AEG, Freshfields now uses recyclable mugs for coffee, firm laptops now come with Wi-Fi, the BlackBerrys have been upgraded to the latest state-of-the-art ‘Curve’ 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 Smith’s group has, among other things, lobbied successfully for better support for cycling to work, a more comfortable dress-down policy during hot summer months and better canteen food. Herbert Smith’s Cochrane comments: “Free fruit [for staff] is our current discussion du jour.”

Herbert Smith associate Philip Beer, who sits on the firm’s group, says: “Some [changes] may seem small and trivial, but it’s the little things that get changed that can make a real difference.”

There can be little argument that the creation of associate groups is a win-win situation. Most changes suggested by associate forums are reasonable and not difficult to implement. And giving control to staff to change their immediate working environment is bound to result in happier staff.

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 being tackled, many relating to that old chestnut of work-life balance.

For example, Herbert Smith’s 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 Berwin’s team has effected clarification in the firm’s 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.

But there is a very real limit to how far associates’ voices can carry. Allen & Overy (A&O) is just one of the few firms where an associate now sits on the weekly management committee meetings.

The meetings 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 David Morley.

Important managerial decisions are made at the meetings also 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 therefore often more passive. There are also currently no elections held for the position and, to a certain extent, he can therefore only be nominally representative for all associates. If an issue comes up in the meeting that directly affects associates, Knight’s 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&O’s initiative is an interesting development that is indicative of the increasing interest of firms’ management in the views of their associates, who are beginning to wield ever-greater influence internally as their client-winning responsibilities increase. The firm has also increased associates’ interest in and exposure to firm management issues. It could be a model that other firms seek to emulate in the future.

Beer at Herbert Smith thinks that important strides have been made recently in the field of management communicating with associates. “It’s certainly gotten a lot better in the years I’ve been an assistant. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s perfect, but it’s definitely better,” he says. “And I think these forums give management the chance to explain to assistants and to feed back what’s going on with the firm and the wider strategy.

“I think one has to be realistic, though, about the fact that there are a number of management decisions 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 and it is clear that some tradition will and has to prevail: ultimately it should be the partners’ job to manage the firm they own and it should be the job of fee-earners to bring the money in. But the lines between the two are slowly starting to blur. Lovells, for instance, has recently mooted giving the vote to non-equity partners who own no share in the profits of the firm.

But whether this will result in universal suffrage at large law firms in the near future is doubtful. That said, 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 many of our governments the world over, people who have tasted freedom soon develop ravenous appetites for more of it.