For non-legal staff, career progression within firms can be restricted by the profession’s ban on them joining equity partnerships. But under the Legal Services Act (LSA), plans are afoot to overhaul these regulations.
In the latest partnership promotions round some firms are offering associate director positions in an effort to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the LSA.
Irwin Mitchell began promoting non-legal staff to associate director and director (AD&D) positions in 1998. Today the firm has 28 associate directors, of whom four were recently promoted, and the post is regarded as being equivalent to partnership level.
All four of Irwin Mitchell’s recent promotees work on the operational side: Michael Bond is responsible for managing the firm’s insurance, lending and recovery team; Hugh Darby is a chartered accountant who works with the firm’s high-volume personal injury (PI) practice; Karen Codling produces medico-legal reports on catastrophic injury; and Maria Kesterton is responsible for the firm’s client care and business improvement teams.
“All four make a massive contribution to the running of the firm,” says senior partner Michael Napier. “We can’t call them partners – they can’t be in the equity – but we’ve had this structure for 10 years and we promote people on merit.”
Irwin Mitchell is well known for its PI work and employs 165 paralegals. Napier says that, by establishing the AD&D positions, the firm has created a career path for paralegals.
It is a policy which has won the firm some high praise, and in 2006 it was named by the Institute of Paralegals as law firm employer of the year.
“It’s really empowering for the firm to be able to give people who aren’t solicitors a career path,” Napier says.
Irwin Mitchell, as Napier rightly points out, is not the only firm looking to create opportunities for non-legal staff ahead of the implementation of the LSA.
Shoosmiths recently promoted two to the partner-equivalent level. Non-lawyers Kay Taylor and Lisa Emery have been promoted in the firm’s Basingstoke office, with a focus on clinical negligence and PI respectively.
Chief executive Paul Stothard says Shoosmiths has been focusing more on its transactional advisory practices rather than its volume business in the last few years. However, he adds: “We’ve always had some very good people in those areas and some very good managers who need a career path.”
Shoosmiths is yet to rule out a strategy of taking on outside investment. “All you can do is make sure you’re agile enough to respond and you need to be very careful about what you do,” says Stothard.
Yet the firm clearly wants to be able to offer associate directors all the opportunities the LSA will afford them. Stothard says this includes welcoming non-lawyers into the full equity partnership.
“If they can justify a contribution to the firm we’d consider allowing them to join,” he says. “The only artificial barrier to them coming through are the regulations.”
With many firms now looking to position themselves to take advantage of the LSA’s implementation, creating alternative career paths for paralegals is increasingly becoming a priority.
Napier says the Solicitors Regulation Authority now needs to work with the profession to establish a set of straightforward rules to govern how non-lawyers are able to join partnerships.