Alternative Comedy

Allen & Overy (A&O) has finally bowed to the criticisms levelled against it from the firm’s growing number of disenchanted assistants, who are pushing for alternative career paths.

The magic circle firm is consulting with its assistants about the possibility of introducing a substitute to the traditional partnership track. The review, however, is still at a relatively early stage, with no consensus being reached on what changes should be used. But with a potential assistant revolt just around the corner, A&O’s management had better move quickly.

One suggestion being mooted is understood to be the creation of a role akin to that of ‘of counsel’ (a ranking commonly found in US firms allowing senior lawyer status with a big pay package) across its City arm. Indeed, A&O already has a similar role entitled ‘senior counsel’ in some of its overseas offices. This may satisfy the demands of those assistants who for reasons such as lifestyle do not want to become partners – or, indeed, those who don’t want the risk that goes with partnership.

However, A&O may find it much tougher to sell any plans that involve creating another layer between assistant and partner to talented senior assistants who are desperate to join the lockstep. To these assistants, the issue is not about if they want to become partners, it’s more to do with when.

The days of being made up at the tender age of 30 are long gone. As research by The Lawyer revealed (25 April), assistants are having to wait much longer before being made up. According to the research, the average age of the partners who were made up at the beginning of the 2005-06 financial year at the top 10 City firms was almost 35. With this in mind, A&O needs to think long and hard about how it plans to appease those assistants who are hungry to join the ranks of partnership.

A&O’s decision to create a new ‘managing associate’ to create a clearer path for non-legal staff has been broadly welcomed by staff. But with a whole bunch of unhappy assistants to contend with, the move was timed very badly.

Indeed, there’s no doubt there are many at A&O who sympathise with the remarks made by departing leverage finance partner Tony Keal in his misdirected email. Keal acknowledged that A&O must give assistants the same opportunities that the partnership carrot no longer provides. He may be on his way out, but his warning should not be ignored.