THE BIG five firms are receiving an unprecedented number of applications from partners in medium-sized outfits who fear for their future as the market consolidates.
Tony Williams, managing partner of Clifford Chance, says he expects 1999 to be "the year of the CV", with at least 100 approaches from partners at other firms.
"Two years ago, this was almost unheard of. You might have seen five, or at most 10," he says. "Currently, you can expect a minimum of 30 to 40 partners active in the market, excluding those who go through headhunters."
The partners who contact Clifford Chance are predominantly from the 15 to 20 firms just below the top five, Williams says. They either make their approaches directly, through agencies or via contacts at the firm.
Martin Plexton, director of personnel at Allen & Overy, says his firm receives at least twice as many approaches from partners as it did two years ago, adding that agencies filter out many more hopefuls. "There are some surprising people who are highly regarded within their own firm," he says.
"Many have seen the consolidation going on in the market and want to be with a firm that will still be there when the consolidation stops."
Williams agrees: "Quite a lot of younger partners see the market getting tougher and worry their firm will not be strong enough to survive."
He says some partners are concerned by the earnings gap opening up between the big five and their other rivals.
Tony Angel, managing partner of Linklaters, says the trend started five or six years ago, "and you are seeing it more and more".
"You have excellent people, who made what seemed like a sensible choice at the time, find the way the market is going they can only satisfy their career aims with a magic circle firm."
Adrian Fox, managing director of legal recruitment agency QD, confirms the market is more mobile than it has ever been.
He says partner loyalty was eroded during the last recession and "the general feeling is that the medium-sized firms are vulnerable and, as a result, some of their partners will feel less assured of their positions".