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Associates are still distrustful of the of counsel role and alternative career paths, despite many big firms having them in place for several years. Lawyers are unsure whether those roles are just euphemisms for a career dead end or if they are a fast-track to partnership.
Creating alternative career paths for associates was a big trend several years ago and many firms jumped on board, hoping it would be an easy fix to reducing the attrition of associates faced with ever-lengthening partnership ladders. But with the economic situation worsening, firms may have to rethink their strategy.
The question has been raised at SJ Berwin, which is still without the of counsel position, at the firm’s associate solicitors forum (ASF). The ASF recently decided to poll associates about whether to introduce the role at the firm (The Lawyer, 6 October).
“The of counsel role was seen as something that was sufficiently important to review,” says ASF chair Emma Herriman. “We surveyed associates to see whether they’re even interested.”
The of counsel role is hard to define. Herriman says it could provide work-life balance. But she adds that a career in law is so demanding that such flexibility might just not materialise.
Associates are also unclear as to what the role may mean for their careers. “Some firms have looked at it as a place to park associates to acquire new skills in preparation to partnership,” explains Michael Roch of consultancy Kerma Partners. “Second, some associates are packed into the role permanently because they have good technical skills in a specialist area, but aren’t as strong with clients. Third, they could be seen as a parking place for older partners, who are either no longer performing the way they should or are too good to let go.”
The choice for the SJ Berwin associates will not be a clear-cut one. And partners are now less sure about the benefits of alternate career paths for associates.
One top-20 firm partner says that he cannot imagine that the current climate would make the introduction of the of counsel position any more feasible.
Alan Hodgart of legal consultancy H4 identifies cost as one of the main issues.
“One of the problems with the role is that if you create a group of very highly paid senior people in a market, that pushes prices down,” he says. “The danger is that you end up with a wide, flat top structure of very high fixed costs.”
The economic climate has made associate attrition a far less pressing problem for most firms. Most associates now have little choice but to sit tight, even if told that a promotion to partner is not on the cards in the next few years.
Janet Gaymer CBE QC, former senior partner at Simmons & Simmons and currently Commissioner for Public Appointments, has been involved in the issue throughout her career.
“The danger and the challenge for management,” she says, “is that the occupants of the position don’t become a sort of underclass.”