Keep calm and carry on

Ever since the onset of the recession there’s been talk of a paradigm shift within the law. This week Matt Byrne interviews managing partners of mainly transatlantic firms for their views, but that’s not the whole story:

Ever since the onset of the recession there’s been talk of a paradigm shift within the law. This week Matt Byrne interviews managing partners of mainly transatlantic firms for their views, but that’s not the whole story: we wanted to balance this with the views from London-headquartered firms with largely domestic practices.

How pleasurable, then, to hear such sanguine responses from the Brits. And about time too.

I particularly liked the stoicism shown by Macfarlanes senior partner Charles Martin, who says: “We’ve got a job to do and a responsibility to deliver in terms of supporting the economic activity which is going to get us out of this recession.”

So leverage is not dead. The notion that law firms are suddenly going to ditch the pyramid model is, on this showing, misplaced.

There is a shift of sorts: law firms have relied on attrition, and there isn’t much of that at the moment, so it has to be forced. Equally, the fact that associates generate the money in the boom and partners generate the money in the downturn might appear at first glance to give associates much less of a stake in the future of the business.

But I’m not sure this is the case at all. All law firm leaders are still desperate to hang on to their best people, and most of them aren’t going to start slashing into their junior lawyer hiring programmes. Redundancies are painful, but there are good reasons why they had to do it. And it isn’t all about protecting partner profits, either, although that is undoubtedly an element.

It’s about ­preserving that most vital of qualities: energy. Having dozens of ­people in a department with nothing to do is terrible, both for business and for lawyers’ self-esteem.

As I’ve argued before, the greatest danger facing UK law firms is stasis. So how excellent to recap on this year’s expansionist moves: SJ Berwin launching in Asia; LG and BLP opening in Moscow; Olswang beefing up in Berlin; Ashurst launching in New York; and Dentons forging ahead with its Africa practice.

There’s no need to assume that every law firm will have to retrench dramatically. Chins up.

catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.com