Partner prospects remote despite lit boom
18 October 2010 | By Katy Dowell
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For most lawyers starting out in the profession, partnership is the target to aim at.
But with the number of promotions dwindling as firms adapt to a more stringent economic model, partnership promotion prospects seem bleak.
Research by The Lawyer shows that litigators have a particularly tough time and, while the market is ripe for litigation at the moment, that does not necessarily guarantee the partner places.
In the past year Herbert Smith and DLA Piper were the big litigation promoters. Of the nine associates made up to the DLA Piper partnership in 2010, five were litigators. This compares with three out of a possible 16 in 2009.
“We only promote those into the partnership who will make a difference, it’s not a time-sensitive thing,” comments DLA Piper UK head of litigation and regulation David Gray. “The backdrop of the markets is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.”
That said, Gray believes that litigation associates have a better chance of promotion, given that most litigators have seen an upturn in business since the recession kicked in.
Herbert Smith, for example, promoted 10 out of a total round of 18 into its litigation practice, compared with two out of 13 a year earlier. Over the past five years approximately 35 per cent of the firm’s promotions were into its litigation practice.
Herbert Smith global head of dispute resolution Sonya Leydecker says promotion to the partnership is “challenging”, but increased client demand means the practice is in growth mode. She says: “The practice has grown and will continue to grow.
“There’s increasing demand for partners in our international offices, which will be a mixture of candidates coming up through the ranks locally and partners moving from other offices, notably London.”
Similarly, client demand has driven Hogan Lovells to expand its dispute resolution partnership. In the past two years the firm has added 11 associates to its partnership ranks, compared with none in 2008.
Hogan Lovells co-head of litigation, arbitration and employment Patrick Sherrington says the firm prefers to grow organically and that there are good opportunities available
for the right associate.
He says: “Work levels inevitably are an important consideration but so is the quality of the individual and the need for constant regeneration of the practice.”
Sherrington recognises that the current economic environment has pushed client demand.
Sherrington comments: “I’m pleased to say that work levels remain high, so I continue to see excellent career prospects for the right people.”
DLA Piper, Herbert Smith and Hogan Lovells occupy the top end of the litigation market, and have deep roots in the sector. Although it might fluctuate, they will always have demand for new partners.
Those further down the hierarchy that have strategic objectives to grow their counter-cyclical practices have improved their partnership promotion pros-pects since the downturn.
CMS Cameron McKenna promoted eight associates into its litigation partnership over the past two years, compared with just one in 2008.
Meanwhile, figures from Taylor Wessing show it has pushed up demand for dispute resolution partners and the firm has been consistent in its promotions over the past three years.
In 2008 it promoted six litigators in a 19-strong round (31.5 per cent). This fell to four out of a total of 17 (23.5 per cent) in 2009 and rose again at the latest promotion round to five out of a total of 12 (42 per cent) joining the dispute resolution partnership.
Taken by the figures alone, these firms might seem like the ideal home for ambitious associates. Yet the road to partnership is never going to be smooth.
Norton Rose has a strategic objective to grow its dispute resolution practice so that it accounts for 20 per cent of overall turnover by the end of 2010-11. At the latest year-end, the practice increased its turnover by 23.6 per cent, from £34.8m to £43m, or 14 per cent of its £307m turnover.
The increased demand has been met through a mix of promotions and lateral hires. In the past year the firm has added 45 lawyers to its litigation practice “on the basis that we’re able to offer good prospects in accordance with our growth plan”, says head of dispute resolution Antony Dutton.
Yet in 2010 the firm promoted one in a nine-strong round to litigation, compared with four out of a total of 12 in 2009 and two out of 16 in 2008.
The firm has recently begun its interview process for the next round. It is a long process and not everyone will make it through.
“Once identified, promotion candidates have to attend partnership academy on two occasions and present to a group of senior partners and other candidates on their business case,” Dutton explains.
“They receive helpful feedback that allows them to refine their approach and develop their plans. After this decisions are taken at management level and soundings are taken from the partners followed by a promotion committee interview, a further review and partnership vote.”
If that seems tough, consider the approach at DLA Piper, where half of the associates selected for partnership interview are unlikely to make it through to the final stages.
“Our litigators say it’s harder to get into our litigation partnership than anywhere else,” says Gray. DLA Piper will make its promotions on 1 May 2011, but the interview process is about to get underway.
For the chosen few there will be: a preliminary assessment; tests on the firm and its financials; mock interviews; mock pitches in front of actors paid to pose as clients; an interview with the appointments sub-committee of the board; and finally, before jumping the final hurdle, there will be a reassessment of the business case for promotion. So making it through is no mean feat.
Across the board, senior litigators say there are increased opportunities for associates wanting to make partnership.
This is supported by the figures, which show the number of partners promoted increased from 62 in 2009 to 91 in 2010.
Yet it remains a narrow window of opportunity, and as the economy heads towards the anticipated recovery, firms will be looking to refill their corporate practices.