Something has happened to the partnership structures at Lovells and Clifford Chance while no one was looking: salaried partner creep.
German mergers were a factor, and it has happened over two years rather than overnight, but the salaried partner concept has become ensconced and is on the increase all over the City.
Prior to their Anglo-German mergers, the firms made up partners straight to equity. Both now promote associates to equity via a nebulous salaried level that is part waiting room, part filter. However, Clifford Chance is now reviewing the concept civil-service style with a salaried partnership committee. Formed after the Pünder merger, the often dormant committee has recently been reconstituted to look at the issue under the leadership of Philip Palmer. The process is an extension of the magic circle firm’s compensation review.
Meanwhile, the natives might get restless. This year, the waiting room has been unofficially extended from two to three or more years, yet nowhere is there any formal reference to this policy. Part of the problem is that Clifford Chance’s rules are like the UK constitution – unwritten.
It’s easy to see why Clifford Chance has extended the waiting time for salaried partners. Times are tough and it’s difficult to make a business case for extending the equity.
Freshfields has had the same problems, as The Lawyer reported in June. An email mistakenly sent to projects assistants stated that promotion prospects were bleak, and the firm doesn’t have a salaried partner level to take up the slack.
Lovells had salaried partners in London in the mid-1990s and then abolished the concept – but now it’s back. This year it made up 16 partners in London to salaried level. Reinserting this extra layer allows the firm leeway to test out junior lateral hires and goes some way to harmonising the London system with that used by the rest of the network. Also (and whisper this), it gives it an extra tool to deal with underperforming partners, who can be de-equitised to salaried level.
But dead wood at the top of lockstep is a big concern for salaried partners, while competition between salaried partners competing for equity can be destructive.
However, there are all sorts of positives about salaried partnership: it can be used to artificially lengthen a short lockstep; it offers an alternative for those who don’t want the commitment of partnership; it keeps talent within the firm.
Either way, get used to it; salaried partners are increasingly the norm at City firms that were once proud bastions of a ‘straight to equity’ tradition.