It’s just an illusion

This all sounds like news to gladden a magic circle associate’s heart. Allen & Overy (A&O), Clifford Chance and Linklaters all promoted more this year than last: A&O from 21 to 23, Links 18 to 23 and Clifford Chance 23 to 27.

The more cautious Freshfields promoted 20, the same as last year.

You might think on these stats that good times are just around the corner, but that would ignore the current partner restructures at A&O, Clifford Chance and Linklaters. Linklaters, home of the permanent revolution, has arguably been the most savage, but is simply the most upfront; A&O likes to trim as it goes, while Clifford Chance, which has the largest number of non-equity partners in the magic circle, is doing a remarkable amount of performance management all of a sudden.

All of this is as it should be; most rational beings agree that if you want to be taking home nearly a million, tough appraisals are par for the course.

However, it’s also evident that, despite these rosy-sounding promotion figures, the opportunities for more junior lawyers in the big four are shrinking
by the year in the UK. The covert exit of the magic circle from traditional real estate, IP and employment work has created enormous opportunities for those national and regional firms that can sustain these businesses on a lower cost base, but it’s also creating a second-class system
of transactional support lawyers within the magic circle. I’d love to hear how the handful of magic circle partners still working in these areas sell
their departments to newly-qualifieds, because the evidence is that, if you’re an associate who fancies working in any of these sectors, you can only count on a few years in Olympus before you’re forced accept the inevitable and join DLA Piper.

The logic of segmentation, outsourcing and virtual working is such that the day can’t be far off when an elite global firm refashions itself aggressively around its core disciplines, with IP, employment and other specialisations hived off in a workable form. Don’t be deceived by the partner promos or Asia alliances. The magic circle firms aren’t getting bigger over here; slowly but surely, they’re shrinking.