One of the issues we have been addressing recently is how to encourage partners to widen their interests outside of the firm.
There are two distinct reasons for this. First, notwithstanding how busy partners are, they can afford some time to help other organisations, whether that is a charity, a Government organisation, an NGO, as a non-executive director for a corporate or with a local organisation such as being a school governor.
There are benefits to both the individual and the firm in having more partners gain direct exposure to varying environments as principals rather than advisers. Broadening contacts and knowledge can, of course, advantage the firm but engaging in wider community activities helps partners remain energised and engaged.
Also, as we all live longer lives, more partners need to think about what they will do after they retire. At Ashurst, we have no fixed retirement age. Some partners will continue to make a significant contribution to the firm for longer than others. Others may tire of law and choose to pursue different interests and we are keen to provide the support for that to happen.
As a result we have launched Life Outside Ashurst (deliberately not Life After Ashurst: it was important partners did not think participation was a first step to departure). The best advice we had was to start with 10 of the strongest, highest-profile partners. We did this and the scheme is now genuinely seen as something of interest rather than something to be feared.
So far, between 40 and 50 partners have attended a one-day course. The feedback we are getting is that 90 per cent of the participants welcome the opportunity to think about these issues and we have had some success in people beginning to take on more of these roles. Our intention is to continue to encourage this and indeed our partner appraisal process now includes a question asking partners what activities they participate in outside of the firm.
Of course, there have been concerns but our view is that none of these are fundamentally problematic. A partner must discuss whether or not to take on a role with management to ensure that it is appropriate and that there is complete transparency. Anything taken on that could be relevant is entered into our conflict system and our experience is that corporates and other organisations are pretty sophisticated when it comes to handling any conflicts that exist with a member of any relevant board or committee.
The other obvious concern has been whether it is a productive use of partners’ time. We clearly think it is, given that it broadens and deepens experience and puts them into contact with people they may not otherwise come across. Moreover, our experience is that the kind of people who are interested in doing something like this can always make time without adversely impacting their professional lives. After these initial anxieties the programme is more widely understood and when asked to join the course the overwhelming majority of partners are pleased.
Unlike in the US and Asia, the UK does not have a culture of using lawyers on boards and other committees. There is a wealth of talent and experience within firms that could be used more effectively. Much of this experience goes way beyond the practice of law. Partners are owners of their businesses and have much experience of the issues and challenges that their firms have faced, as well as, of course, observing the issues that their clients have faced and how they have managed them. English lawyers are no different to lawyers in the US or Asia.