Partnership. Its competition time for partners

As recruitment and selection processes for trainees become ever more sophisticated, it is worth considering some of the changes which have been implemented for selecting partners from the large number of assistants who work in big firms.

Where the opportunity once existed for a solicitor with five or six years of post-qualification experience to reach partnership, the rapid expansion of the larger firms during the 1980s means that today, although many aspire, few are chosen.

The result is that many firms have developed selection procedures which place emphasis on the analysis of a potential partner's performance, skills and abilities.

A very large firm also has the additional problem of identifying possible candidates from an army of lawyers often straddling two or three continents.

Leon Boschoff, partner at Clifford Chance, says: “The system has changed substantially. As the firm gets bigger it becomes hard to know whether A or B is the better person.”

Clifford Chance has developed a system in which partnership assessment is built into the assistant's training programme. It culminates in individual and group assessments at a residential course, and candidates at that stage are subjected to thorough scrutiny of their non-legal and non-technical skills.

The new policy has evolved over the past two to three years and aims to establish a means of giving assistant solicitors an opportunity to show what they can do. A candidate is proposed by his or her group on the basis of their legal and non-legal skills. During the year-long process which follows, the nominee must then demonstrate the strength of their business skills as well as proving their abilities.

A similar appraisal system has been developed in the past year by City firm Cameron Markby Hewitt (CMH). It aims to identify the attributes of a successful partner and turn them into potential candidates during their career. Five years after qualification, a solicitor is sent on a residential course at an assessment centre. At present this can lead to appointment as a salaried partner. However CMH is introducing a higher entry period which could lead to a full equity partnership.

The process begins with nomination by one of the firm's departments. The policy committee then considers the nomination with reference to the candidates' reported abilities at the assessment centres and their business cases. The successful candidate must show a high technical ability and the potential to develop a practice.

Clive Brown, managing partner at CMH, says that the firm is trying to bring more objective analysis into the procedure. “As the firm grows it becomes harder for everyone to be well known within the firm, and as the selection process is dependent on the partners themselves this becomes a burden.”

Ruth Finch, who has been a partner at CMH for six months, says the process is useful in producing objectivity. “New concepts are being introduced in the assessments which help to identify strengths and weaknesses over the three days, which is very useful, although it is nerve-racking.”

She is now involved in the appraisal of trainees and assistants and thinks the process can be started early. However, she also believes that although the programme is a useful tool, it should not be the only form of selection.

CMH's Brown thinks that the programme works in two ways. By identifying the skills and abilities the firm wants from its future partners and offering solicitors the training to develop these skills, CMH hopes it will help those who are not selected to make it elsewhere.

This enthusiastic attitude towards partnership policy can be contrasted with the traditional attitude of firms such as Lovell White Durrant. “We don't talk about our partnership selection procedure,” says a spokesperson.

Just as the top London firms are rethinking partnership policies, so are the large regional firms. Eversheds is gradually introducing a firm-wide approach to partner selection. At the Birmingham office, director of training Jane Storer explains that the office has been piloting partnership assessment for three years and one of the immediate priorities is to develop the policy nationwide.

She says: “What we are working towards is the introduction of a competency framework which recognises the contributions lawyers need to make as a partner. Technical ability is only part of it. People make contributions in different ways and the assessments are aimed at objectively identifying those contributions.”