Revealed: gloomy prospects fail to deter wannabe partners

YouGov survey finds greater proportion of junior lawyers coveting partnership in year that promotions nosedive

Junior lawyers are increasingly setting their sights on partnership despite diminishing ­prospects for promotion at the UK’s largest firms.

The second YouGov legal sector employee engagement survey shows that more fee-earners than last year want to become partners and believe they have a realistic chance of doing so.

However, the increased ambition of junior lawyers is not matched by the ­opportunities available to them. Promotions at the top 30 firms in the country fell by an average of 30 per cent in 2009, according to research by The Lawyer.

The employee engagement survey was launched last year to measure ­commitment, motivation and career development among law firm employees. Employee engagement is seen as a better measure than job satisfaction because it is linked to productivity and profitability.

In 2008 just 46 per cent of fee-earners and professional support lawyers said their goal was to become a partner. That figure rose to 56 per cent this year.
CMS Cameron McKenna managing partner Duncan Weston said junior lawyers should not underestimate the challenge of becoming a partner. “Anyone who thinks that becoming a partner is like it was 20 years ago is misguided,” he stressed. “It’s getting tougher and tougher.”

Yet the survey found that more lawyers thought partnership was achievable at their firm, with 48 per cent giving a positive response compared with 40 per cent in 2008.

Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) executive member Kevin Poulter said: “I’m not surprised people still view partnership as the logical career path, but this could change in the coming years.

“As opportunities to become a partner are reduced, junior lawyers will have to seek alternatives.”

The proportion of lawyers who thought their firm offered good alternatives to partnership did rise during the year, from 28 per cent to 38 per cent.

YouGov’s survey is the first to take into account all law firm employees. Last year the study exposed a gulf between fee-earners and business services staff in key measures of engagement – motivation, commitment, pride and willingness to recommend the firm to others.

The 2009 survey, comprising responses from 500 fee-earners and 600 business services staff, found that this gap had narrowed. The engagement score for support staff rose from 49 per cent to 54 per cent, although it remained some way behind that of fee-­earners, which rose by one percentage point to 63 per cent.

Field Fisher Waterhouse head of HR James Collinge said: “These figures are interesting as they’re not what you’d expect given what most law firms have been through in the past 12 months.”

By far the most engaged law firm employees in 2009 were partners with a score of 84 per cent, an increase of seven percentage points on the previous year. Trainees and new ­associates also scored highly – 77 and 76 per cent respectively.

The lowest rating was for knowledge management and IT staff, who recorded 36 per cent engagement, down eight percentage points on last year.

The 2009 survey also revealed that the appetite for secondments had fallen in 2009, despite a growing number of law firms ­encouraging staff to move overseas or join clients. These opportunities are often presented as a ­positive step towards gaining ­partnership.

Both client and international secondments were less popular, with 78 and 75 per cent of respondents respectively seeing them as a positive experience, ­compared with 82 and 85 per cent last year.

Hammonds managing partner Peter Crossley said: “Some lawyers have found that, after returning from an international secondment, their career has gone ­sideways perhaps, but the secondment hasn’t necessarily advanced their career.”