The Lawyer/YouGov Survey: City associates say ‘no’ to partnership carrot

Nearly two-thirds of solicitors in the UK’s top 10 firms are not aiming for partnership, according to the biggest-ever statistical survey of the legal profession, carried out by The Lawyer in association with polling company YouGov.

Across the profession 64 per cent of assistant solicitors are aiming for partnership. But the largest firms have experienced the most vocal discontent from their associates, prompting many of them to rethink their pay and career structures.

This corresponds to the findings of the survey of 2,980 lawyers, which reveals that the UK’s largest firms have proportionally the fewest number of lawyers aiming for partnership. Only 37 per cent of lawyers in firms with more than £250m in turnover say that partnership is an aim for them. That corresponds to the top nine law firms by revenue: Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Allen & Overy (A&O), Lovells, DLA Piper, Eversheds, Slaughter and May and Herbert Smith.

Most of those firms have overhauled their associate career paths, most notably A&O, Freshfields and DLA Piper. A&O HR director Genevieve Tennant said: “There’s no doubt a combination of factors are at play here. In some firms there will be alternative career options to partnership such as counsel to which associates aspire.

“For others it may still be the case that partnership is either perceived as being too difficult to achieve or that the demands of the role, in terms of the impact on work-life quality, make it less attractive as a long-term career goal.”

By contrast, 61 per cent of associates from firms in
the £100m-£250m turnover bracket are aiming for partnership.
In the £50m-£100m turnover bracket – firms numbering 25-50 in The Lawyer UK100 Annual Report – the proportion of associates aiming for partnership begins to dip, this time to 54 per cent. This decreases to 52 per cent at firms in the £25m-£50m turnover bracket, which number roughly 50-80 in The Lawyer UK100.

Pleasingly for law firms, the desire for partnership grows as associates progress through the firm. Fifty six per cent of newly-qualifieds say they are aiming for partnership, rising to 65 per cent for one to two year-PQEs and 69 per cent for three to five year-PQEs. By six years’ PQE the issue is, as one would expect, dominant: 73 per cent of associates in that bracket say partnership is an aim.

Although the desire for partnership grows as associates progress, there is a corresponding decline in the number
of associates who feel that partnership is attainable.
When asked: “How realistic an aim is partnership for people at your firm who perform well?”, 70 per cent of newly-qualifieds said yes. This rises to 75 per cent at one to two year-PQE level, but then drops to 74 per cent at three to five years’ PQE. At six to 10 years’ PQE this falls to 67 per cent.

The main attraction of partnership, according to the lawyers surveyed, is clear: the financial rewards. No fewer than 35 per cent ranked ‘more money’ as the main attraction. Twenty seven per cent opted for a greater say in the running of the firm and 20 per cent said it was status.

And money is a bigger issue for respondents under the age of 35. Forty per cent of them ranked money first, compared with 31 per cent of respondents aged 35 and over. The question of children did not affect responses: 36 per cent of respondents without children ranked money first, compared with 34 per cent with children.

Although money is deemed the most attractive part of becoming a partner, its corollary – billing – was deemed the least attractive. The survey found that 37 per cent of respondents named pressure to bill as the biggest downside, while 47 per cent of respondents from the top 10 firms cited pressure to bill as an issue.

The second-biggest drawback of making partner, the survey found, was insecurity and risk management, named by 24 per cent. However, only 17 per cent of respondents from the biggest firms ranked this factor.