Dorsey’s problems reflect US partnership trend

American firms strike all sorts of pious poses when it comes to career progression. We Brits tend to be cynical about their approach, which from a distance seems to be merely a compliance exercise verging on the robotic. Thankfully, the British way of doing things is less about mouthing HR-speak and more about actually taking your team down the pub.

So what’s this ticking away in the corner? Why, a nasty little timebomb. If you thought the UK firms have had problems keeping their associates happy, then the transatlantic firms’ problems could be even acuter.

It’s partnership promotion season for the US practices. And, strangely enough, they seem reticent about making up people outside the States. Honourable exceptions here include McDermott Will & Emery, which promoted four in London, and Latham & Watkins, which made up five in London this year out of a firmwide total of 30. Best of the lot was White & Case, which promoted a commendable seven to partnership in the UK out of a global promotion round of 25.

But those firms aside, most of the larger US firms have virtually ignored London according to the partnership announcements we’ve seen in the past month – despite the fact that the UK is the US firms’ biggest market outside the States. What seems like a home advantage – in particular the profitability of the New York market – is a positive drawback overseas. Promotions to partnership in the foreign offices are inherently dilutive.

Look at Dorsey & Whitney’s travails, revealed by The Lawyer at the end of last year. The disintegration of the flagship tax litigation team came about because the partnership door was closed to some of its lawyers. If Dorsey had had just a little dollop of emotional intelligence, it would have seen that recruiting three senior litigation associates from Slaughter and May would have muddied the career waters for the existing senior lawyers.

US firms, encouraged by energetic headhunters, usually seem more concerned to make the eye-catching lateral hire than nurturing their own. The number of US firms that have built a sustainable City practice is tiny. Anecdotal evidence from recruitment consultants suggests associate churn at US firms in London far outstrips that at UK firms – something that has a knock-on effect on client service.

No wonder so many associates at US firms in London will be spoiling for a fight this year. The pay rates may be better, but the prospects seem pretty dismal.