Carry out a straw poll on what thrusting young things fresh out of law school dream of, and for most of them the job title “partner” would come marginally ahead of the top-of-the-range convertible.
To come to the end of your career still as an assistant would, to many, be tantamount to failure, but attaining partnership in a top firm may not be the holy grail that it once was.
Perhaps what those fresh-faced articled clerks need to remember is that partnership is more than just a title. With a recession supposedly looming, the top five law firms have reported a dramatic increase in CVs dropping on their desks from partners in middle-sized firms, who are worried that if their firm loses its way, or a fellow partner “loses” some money, they stand to forego more than just their embossed business cards.
And even if the partner's position is in one of the top five and is secure, is it worth all the blood, sweat and tears?
Many are coming round to the idea that it would be better to settle for the steady salary of an in-house position, or even go it alone, rather than sacrifice all their waking hours to the multinational machine.
“Becoming a partner is run on a carrot and stick basis,” explains one senior assistant at a leading City firm, who has decided that his career path will not lead to partnership.
Because the cost of assistants comes out of the profitability of a partner's dep- artment the workforce is cut down, but it is presumed that the assistants will just knuckle down and do the work because of the promise of partnership.
“You have to jump through a series of hoops to reach partnership and there are increasingly fewer people prepared to do that,” he says.
He believes that in many large firms the role of the partner is equivalent to that of a shareholder – in theory each one can influence the direction of the firm or company, but in practice only the major shareholders have any effective power.
“Once you do become a partner, there is no real team structure and everyone is responsible for meeting ridiculous billing targets. The seniority of the partners and how much sway they can have on decisions is based not on how talented they are in management, or on their profitability, but on how long they have been a partner.”
If the larger firms want to hold on to promising assistants, especially women, then the partnership structure has to change, he says.
“Unless the partnership structure is changed, you will be stuck with very ambitious people with no real vision or spark, who do not have the imagination to lead the firm onto a different management role.”
Richard Moorhead, chairman of the Young Solicitors' Group, agrees there is a move away from pursuing the traditional goal. His organisation has run several seminars on the responsibilities of becoming a partner.
“We try to impress on our members that there is a financial risk to the job. It is not the job for life that it once was.
“Although most of our members are not affected by firms going under, because that tends to affect small partnerships with older members, there are problems with mergers.
“In the event of mergers and takeovers, the partners who aren't wanted are stripped out, and although I feel personally that these are likely to be the older ones, there is still a risk.”
Moorhead also believes that although legally a partner can have a say in the way that the firm is run, in the larger firms this becomes a practical impossibility.
“Although I still meet young people who are very excited about becoming partners, more and more are wary of the idea. It is not the holy grail that it once was.”
Just over a year ago, Richard Kemp left the security of Garretts, part of the Andersen mega-firm, to set up his own “law firm for the .com world” – as the glossy Kemp & Co brochure calls it.
Kemp was head of the IP/IT department at Garretts, but he felt a need to go it alone. “I was 40 when I did this and I just felt that, if ever there was a time to do something independent, it was now. I have always thought that if you don't do what you are thinking about, then you will kick yourself later.
“Looking at other senior partners in big firms, only a few years older than me, they were already starting to look over their shoulders, because people tend to start retiring at 50. I don't want to retire then because I enjoy what I do and want to keep on doing it. There is more to life than just staying in the same rut.”
One of the benefits of leaving to set up your own practice is that all the hard work comes directly back to you, he says.
“There is a feeling that partners in the big firms are no longer partners in the real sense. At Andersens they are called 'line partners', so they have become like line managers working for any other big multinational, which happens if you work for the top five. That was not what I wanted from my professional life.
“Generally there seems to be a mismatch between the culture of mainstream US or UK plcs and law firms. The two don't seem to gel very well.”
However, as the new practice came into existence at the end of 1997, the past year has not really seen any reduction in hours for Kemp.
“I worked hard, but it was a great feeling of liberation. All the negative energy that went into frustrations with the system has been released to put into my own business. The work I have done in the first year has been just as good, if not better, than the work I did for Garretts.
“At the end of the day you have an overwhelming feeling you are building for your own future.”
Patrick Clancy decided to move to West Merchant Bank after eight years at Slaughter and May, where top equity partners were last year nudging u1m each in profits.
Clancy believes that his career with the firm had come to the point where both sides had to decide whether he was to be made a partner.
But before the offer could come, he jumped ship and landed as a director of West Merchant Bank. He is quite candid about the reason for his departure – his hours meant that not only did his life revolve around work, but it consisted of little else.
“I left because of far too much work and, to be frank, I was getting tired. The hours were pretty terrible – I didn't tend to get home before midnight more than once or twice a month and was in the office again for about 7.45am. I haven't got a family because as you will appreciate, working those hours it is pretty difficult. If I had become a partner then the workload would have become worse and the stress levels would have gone up.”