Keep associates keen, don’t treat them mean

As takeover fever sweeps the City, partners should spare a thought for the poor corporate associates who are working around the clock to ensure the deals get done.

As The Lawyer reports today, the corporate groups at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters are so busy at the moment that both firms have overhauled their systems for allocating work to corporate associates. Freshfields has been piloting a system of involving selected senior associates in the process of assigning work to their peers, which will certainly ensure another pint for the selected few if nothing else. Meanwhile, Linklaters has introduced so-called ‘work allocation partners,’ which rather begs the question: “What were partners doing originally?”

No system of allocating work is perfect. Consequently, firms use slightly different methods. For instance, Allen & Overy has had two work allocation partners in each of its corporate groups for more than four years. Meanwhile, Slaughter and May, which is famous for being a bit of a maverick when it comes to associate issues, gets its junior lawyers to complete a form setting out what deals they’re doing and which partners they’re working with.

But ensuring associates aren’t over-worked is just one part of the jigsaw. The bigger challenge is ensuring work is allocated fairly. That means stopping partners favouring one associate over another. Why should an associate be treated more favourably because they are in with the ‘in crowd’?

It’s every associate’s nightmare to be stuck on a deal being led by a partner who lacks people skills and an ability to manage a transaction – and let’s be honest, there are plenty of partners out there who are lacking in both these departments. What’s more, it’s not good for an associate’s career development to work with the same partners. Indeed, most firms would agree that it’s incredibly important for associates to be exposed to the different styles adopted by partners when running deals. Of course, you’ve also got to impress more than one partner if you want to be one yourself.

If you don’t look after your associates there’s no doubt that attrition rates, which averaged 14 per cent during the 2004-05 financial year, will deteriorate. Just remember Herbert Smith. The firm’s attrition rate last year was just 14.8 per cent, but in recent months associates have been rushing to the door in droves because of low morale. So Linklaters, with an attrition rate of 20 per cent, better make sure it keeps its associates happy. Because pay alone won’t keep them.