Partners do protest too little

Lawyers have become a docile lot. The corporatisation of law firms and the increasingly regimented nature of partnership has produced ranks of professionals who tend to do what they’re told.

Catrin Griffiths

As Joshua Freedman argues (see City Analysis), one reason why Norton Rose has been able to pull off a series of mergers is because the partners are kept in the dark deliberately. Sometimes, alignment is accomplished by an information vacuum.

Still, Peter Martyr shouldn’t assume that he will never be challenged. Norton Rose partners politely delayed Stephen Parish’s reconfirmation as senior partner this year, while the Linklaters and DLA Piper management teams, the profession’s most enthusiastic adopters of legal Thatcherism, also faced resistance in partner ranks. The truculence of Linklaters’ backbenchers in not immediately endorsing Simon Davies’ re-election was profoundly gestural; by contrast, the protest by DLA partners against Nigel Knowles’ investment in LawVest was visceral and raised more awkward questions.

It’s not hard to see off a revolt in a global firm. The partners are earning more than 99 per cent of UK mortals and feel they have more to lose. At best, they’re half-hearted revolutionaries. The uprising may be contained, but the lack of trust can be corrosive in the long run.

The sociology of partner revolts is interesting in smaller firms whose size allows partners to believe in partnership as an ethos, not simply an organisational form. In that tier, a number of rebellions have effected a real change of direction and personnel at the top, but not without turmoil. There wasn’t much gentility in the rebellions at Bevan Brittan in 2008 and Clarke Willmott in 2010. And there’s Dundas & Wilson, whose shocking few years James Swift examines in depth this week in our feature Lawyers in Need. The groundswell of dissent against Donald Shaw’s regime has allowed the new management team of Allan Wernham and Caryn Penley a minor honeymoon in fixing the omnishambles. But their tasks are multiple and their time isn’t infinite. Getting the London partners behind them will be crucial. Good luck with that.