Regions to be cheerful

The scenic route to partnership. By Clio Demetriades

Over the past decade, the decision to leave the City for regional practice has been gaining respectability. One of the ways in which the offering of legal services has changed since the early 1990s is the emergence of strong and growing corporate-branded commercial firms in the regions, emerging lean and mean from the ravages of the 1980s recession.

Where once there were ‘folksy’ general practices, there are now significant regional and national players keen and able to compete for London-centric and City-quality work.

Since lawyers have been willing to make the move out for lifestyle reasons, it has been a win-win situation for firms and lawyers alike: solicitors bring their London expertise to regional firms while improving the quality of their time spent away from the office.

But it has all become a bit of a cliché: quit the corrosive environment of the City and get in touch with your inner child. While for many there remain significant benefits to family life in leaving London, often people get cold feet because they have thought too much about the green fields and not enough about the culture shock.

There is an irony in this not lost on regional firms: every time a City lawyer relocates to a regional town or city and brings a new type of expertise or client, it reinforces that firm’s ability to extend its hospitality to subsequent London lawyers and to even up the balance between the different environments. But regional firms have been concentrating too hard on the obvious appeal of leaving London instead of promoting the often superb and constantly improving offering to their clients. Regional firms are not surprised to see the likes of Osborne Clarke and Shoosmiths returning significant growth in profits ahead of the magic circle, although worn-out lawyers in the latter may be surprised and dispirited by the news.

During difficult times in the early 1990s, City lawyers would often seek to leave London as they felt it would be easier to achieve partnership in the regions. But regional firms were on to this: they did not need burnt-out Londoners, they wanted useful junior assistants up to no more than four years’ PQE or associates and junior partners with viable followings and new expertise. In the past it has been difficult for regional firms to attract these categories on the grounds of quality work alone. Now, though, a growing number of regional and national firms are challenging London to win good candidates.

At the same time, there is growing evidence that it now takes on average a further two years to be made up to partner in the magic circle than it did a decade ago. Since this is unlikely to be met with much joy among junior lawyers billing 2,000 hours a year in the City, it may well encourage many to move outside London earlier on and for reasons of career progression, rather than leaving it until later and acting out of desperation.

Regional firms can capitalise on this worsening situation in London, especially if they are proactive about hiring. This can mean identifying individuals via an executive search company rather than waiting for them to just turn up. If firms are forced to rely on traditional contingency recruitment methods, any advertising campaign or recruitment agency briefing should emphasise not only the quality of the work, but also a strong management that promotes into the partnership and produces healthy results.

To add to these reasons for a London lawyer to move out, there is the persuasive argument of an improved lifestyle – and not just the rural idyll that the idea of regional practice normally provokes. The change in working pace and organisational style is often the most unexpected but compelling reason why, once they have escaped the capital, City lawyers rarely return. Real independence, partner numbers that are manageable, access to a wide range of clients and the opportunity to get to know them on a personal level, a round of golf or a case of wine from a grateful client, a sense of belonging in an environment that yet remains professional, up to date and profitable… lawyer heaven indeed.

Clio Demetriades heads the specialist legal team at executive search firm Howgate Sable