The Slaughters flatliners

Firm ponders its career structure as partner numbers fall

Nobody ever got fired for hiring Slaughter and May. But, as FTSE 100 corporates flock to its side, one question springs to mind – where are all the partners? 

Since 2010/11 partner numbers in London have dropped by 7 per cent, from 114 to 106, compared to a 0.8 per cent drop in London lawyer headcount, which fell from 499 to 495 in the same period. 

The decrease has gone relatively unnoticed by those outside the firm, given that much of it has been through natural attrition. It is unheard of for a Slaughters partner to leave the sacred lockstep for a rival. 

Associate attrition is harder to track. Slaughters has a traditionally high trainee retention rate, keeping on 88 per cent of its latest intake – 46 bright young things. Trainee retention has not dipped below 87.5 per cent in the past three years.

However, a disaffected two- or three-year qualified associate, realising that partnership is beyond them or the firm’s work-life balance is not what they’re after, could well look elsewhere and be eagerly snapped up. It is possible to find former Slaughters lawyers in many segments of the market, including in-house and as partners in respected firms.

If career prospects turn to fuzz, senior associates will obviously start to look around, but does the partnership fall simply mean there are fewer outstanding associates coming through the ranks? 

“Changing partnership numbers are mainly down to demographics,” says practice partner Paul Olney. “From the late ’80s to the early ’90s we had a strong growth in partner numbers and many of those are now reaching an age when retirement is an option. Another factor, perhaps, is that more people retire earlier now, often for positions outside the law.” 

Whatever the reason for the drop, the firm – which has never really gone in for lateral hiring – needs to find a solution to career flatlining.

“It’s an interesting area,” continues Olney. “Whether the traditional model will continue to promote senior associates or whether there are roles that can suit both the individual and the firm and, if so, how that would all work.”

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