Recent conversations with fellow managing partners lead me to believe that today's most universally worrying law firm issue is not globalisation or merger strategy, but recruitment and retention of partners and staff. Nobody seems much concerned about where their next job is coming from, but many have difficulty attracting and keeping the right people. Some are having major problems in this area.
Of course, this is not helped by headhunters (including those instructed by me) who continually challenge the loyalty of partners and assistants, and indeed anyone with a pulse. (I get the feeling that we are this far from the first headhunted trainee…if we are not already there.)
On top of all this, the business world has discovered lawyers. Not only is Digby Jones the new director general of the CBI, but business, especially e-business, has wised up to the fact that solicitors can make a commercial contribution from the inside, and not just as in-house lawyers.
Such is the call of the Wild World Web that some US law firms are now allowing partners to combine substantial time commitments to their private internet interests with practice responsibilities to their firms. Meanwhile, Andersen Consulting, not immune from this trend either, is reported to be lowering the minimum age for partnership and increasing partner numbers by 50 per cent.
So how can we make private practice attractive to the right people? By growing partner numbers by 50 per cent, I hear you say. Now that would be an interesting issue for the magic circle.
I suggest that we can usefully remove some of the other archaic protections of partner status, besides relaxing the requirements for entry into partnership, and in the process we might even enhance our ability to serve the internet economy. We need to think and act a little more dotcom and a lot less year dot.
For a start, partners need to give up their rooms and sit in the midst of their people. Recent research suggests that partners actually spend far less time in concentrated combat with the rocket science of the law than they would like people to believe. If they do have to be uninterruptible, let them go to a room set aside, available for the use of all.
Looked at through the eyes of the internet economy, lawyers' cellular offices show us up as a profession more profoundly interested in hierarchies than client service, like some Dickensian throwback rather than the people-based know-how business we surely want to be.
So are partners willing to pull down their own accommodation privileges for the long-term interests of their firms? They will be in for a shock if they do. Most large firm partners would be far too squeamish to witness at first hand the penal colony lifestyle of their staff.
As things stand, there are too many partners in large firms who resemble little more than First World War generals, leading from the rear from the comfort of their bunkers, demanding massive sacrifices from their troops. Except, of course, that the bizarre thing about these troops is that they are giving up their lives for no greater cause than cash. My guess is that the troops are about to demand equity sooner though, like the Androids.
My own message to the troops is that if you are told "money is no object", it usually translates as "money is our only object". So when you make your Faustian bargain, remember what happened to Faust.
Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org