Associates of the world unite

Herbert Smith’s litigation department is having a rotten time. Associates are leaving in droves, morale – especially after Equitable – is terrible, and the partnership track seems to have disappeared entirely.

As we report today, things have got so bad that Herbert Smith has brought in the hideously ungainly title of ‘people partner’. One can only hope that Herbert Smith has tested its people partners for people skills.

Lots of law firms have started to run focus groups for associates, the idea being that younger lawyers can speak out about the firm. For several years, Linklaters‘ management has been holding regular briefing breakfasts and lunches with senior associates. Allen & Overy has been running similar cosy sessions with associates for a while, but it hasn’t stopped its attrition rate hitting 25 per cent.

Involving more junior colleagues can only make sense – on paper, that is. In practice, it doesn’t quite work that way. A meeting over coffee and croissants is a pretty artificial environment in which to voice grievances or come up with ideas; the best place is usually the bar or the confessional. Anything else can have an unsavoury whiff of Martin Lukes.

What’s more, I rather doubt associates’ candour in such setpiece meetings. Lawyers are not at the confrontational end of the spectrum when it comes to organisational psychology; by nature, they’re more passive-aggressive.

When you’re 29 and the prospect of partnership – let alone equity partnership – seems to be hanging on a thread, then how likely are you going to be to bear your soul to the managing partner in front of all your mates? You might rehearse your views down the pub, but by the time the meeting comes round several weeks later, the moment will have passed. Emotion recollected in tranquillity never quite has the same rhetorical sway.

Yet younger lawyers probably don’t realise the strength they have. Their power doesn’t come from bitching about salaries (as if they don’t earn enough already) but from the ever-present threat of revolt.

Associates tend to wield most power in moments of crisis – and, it must be said, by the odd press leak. Just remember Clifford Chance‘s dark night of the soul when the Paddinggate memo was published.

Even in these most individualistic of times, a spot of collective action will always get the partners listening. Even if they’re litigators.