the Leader column

One of the great delights of life as a legal journalist (and oh, they are manifold) is listening to law firm strategy. The best giggle is listening to the US firms opening in London whose entire strategy is to hire 300 lawyers. The next best is to hear law firms talk about corporate management as if it were an end rather than a means.

But Thompsons’ radical new approach should make smaller firms look closely at corporate management structure. These structures have become essential for expansionist City firms, but the models are diverse. They range from astonishingly docile partnerships such as Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters & Alliance, Lovells and DLA, to the accidental revolutionaries at Allen & Overy. At the other end of the spectrum are the covert anarchists of Clifford Chance and Herbert Smith.

But this is not the end of partnership. We are effectively living in a period of full employment where recruitment is a nightmare and retention is sine qua non. In this context, partnership is a hugely attractive feature. Without the partnership carrot, how do you hang on to your most talented assistants? Try all the materialist tactics you like – dress-down, big salaries, concierge services – but it will not make people happy. If retention means making the workplace meaningful, then the concept of a collaborative partnership, with all its intangible virtues, is a key management tool.

Take Clifford Chance’s controversial vote for the merger with Grimaldi, first revealed by The Lawyer (16 October). Here was the best firm in Italy, essentially demanding an off-lockstep deal which ran counter to many Clifford Chance partners’ fundamental principles. Concerns from influential opinion-formers that their firm was being held to ransom by the Italians were so substantial that the vote was delayed while the management got all touchy-feely to win key partners round. In other words, if the Clifford Chance management had not resorted to the traditional, more emotional tug of partnership, it might have lost the day. In that instance, partnership principles had to be reaffirmed.

So good luck to Thompsons, although let’s just hope it doesn’t fall into the trap of seeing a corporate structure as the strategy. It will only work if the partners and assistants have confidence in the people running it. It is not the answer – it’s just a better way of phrasing the question.