A&O shows them the money

The prospect of earning £200,000 just five years after qualification rather concentrates the mind. But the Allen & Overy (A&O) associate reforms are not just about pay.

The plight of A&O’s London lawyers has been well-documented. In August 2003 The Lawyer reported that associates revolted against a new time recording regime, which was perceived internally as increasing recordable hours. On the back of this came the unrest in the employment and pensions group, followed by the famous Keal email. Paradoxically, that email may have done the firm a favour because it exposed a looming crisis in the banking group, many of whose associates were giving up private practice for investment banks. This all combined to create a shocking attrition rate that topped 25 per cent.

A&O’s attempt this time last year to play catch-up with salaries bought the management some breathing space. But as managing partner David Morley and HR head Genevieve Tennant quickly realised, playing a numbers game isn’t enough when US firms and investment banks are after your expensively-trained talent. If associates don’t trust the partnership in the first place, then pay rises are going to be viewed with some suspicion.

Getting your voice heard is as important as getting a good bonus, so A&O’s first senior associate conference in Brighton last summer is a major element in the reforms.

And then there is the new career development programme, where the assessment scheme mirrors that of the partners’ and where partners will have to get more involved in associates’ career workshops. A&O will also be using the services of at least 15 career coaches. Most lawyers, when they’re fed up of the workplace, tend to pick up the phone to a recruiter, whose usual advice is to move. Having your own career coach may sound like new-age guff to cynics, but it’s cheap therapy that can only aid retention.

But this about re-engaging the partners as well. In a briefing to London partners last Wednesday evening, Morley made it clear to them that associate career development was the biggest issue of all.

“The biggest message we got from the associates was how to do better in terms of appraisals and career guidance – and that is a message to partners,” Morley told us last week. “The view of the associates is that partners are poor managers and have weak social skills. It’s fundamental to our business – if we don’t change it, the future of our business is in danger.” He was not exaggerating.