To be a Partner – or not to Bother!!

A career decision, but by whom?

How promotion to Partnership is perceived:

If you ask a young solicitor what his or her career goal is, the majority will still say they want to be a partner. Many recognise the benefits of being exposed as a Trainee to the fast paced commercial / corporate finance firms in London and the major cities, for others culture, atmosphere, values or type of work are paramount for a satisfying career.

However, there is a growing trend to qualify and stay within the city firms for a few years, then they prefer to move out to less relentlessly pressured firms. Increasingly fewer wish to remain and become a partner for a number of reasons.

Outdated management practices, restrictive partnerships, secret societies run by older, now possibly underperforming partners just will not ‘cut the mustard’. If you do not tackle fundamental issues in the practice, your salaried / junior equity partners will not put in the capital and commit to the firm. They want the quality of work but not the working life and practices of previous generations.

Over the past 5 – 10 years firms around the country have experimented with ways to improve retention of the right staff (which includes getting rid of those who are underperforming) and there are, inevitably, as many options, almost, as there are firms.

How can the partners, supported by the HR department develop sufficient options to keep staff, without setting unnecessary precedents, appear to show bias, or discriminate? Recognising that people are motivated by different elements within their working lives starts to erode the desire to manage and treat your staff in exactly the same way.

What is at the heart of these strategies is the wholehearted ability and willingness of the partners to support these measures. As with Emotional Capital* – if you wish to change the culture – you have to change the climate.

Steps to developing options for career management:

General approach:

Partners to: define the culture and values they want – for sustainable business and staff retention. This can be managed internally or better still externally facilitated through an awayday, etc., to ensure impartiality.

Canvas views and opinions from interested groups and those affected by any changes you may choose to introduce. Allow plenty of time for everyone to understand and absorb the changes. Run tandem schemes, pilot them, be open about what you have to have – and where you can be flexible

Developing alternative paths other than full equity partner is now a must:

— review the value and importance placed on titles (check motivators) and explore options linked to responsibilities – there has to be a trade off. Be firm where an individual does not fit – and encourage them to develop their career and find a role elsewhere – just not in your firm.

— these are practical where clients can be encouraged to see non-partners as equals to partners, are introduced to more junior staff earlier (easier in smaller practices)

— there is a justification for a technical specialist role – e.g. Professional Support Lawyer, Property specialist,

— the culture is one where titles are not used on business cards (sounds simple) so clients are unaware unless they ask

— internally there is an understanding around terminology, such as Senior Equity, or Junior Equity, and just what that means in terms of real promotion, decision making and genuine equity in the firm, etc..

Devise a department or team structure that requires management skills rather than technical excellence – play to people’s strengths. Establish the best person for the job (which may not be a partner) through competency-based processes, be open and coach. Use support stuff to underpin missing skills.

Reward those who manage, (do they need to be a partner?) consider tenure, remit, % fee earning options – but with a team target making a direct link to reward and bonuses

Use a pilot scheme – ideally the partners themselves – check and test it out! And then apply to other staff/ partners.

Be prepared to link basic pay, bonuses and benefits to pro rata roles – consider the contribution individuals make and pay for value added, not attendance. Reward technical excellence, management or Business Development, etc., contributions. Reward your winners in a manner that makes them stay and makes those less effective become more competitive. Be overt – not coy: communicate.

Consider the cafeteria / shopping basket approach to benefits and bonuses – this allows individuals to have benefits that they value and can use. Whilst it requires some thinking through – the benefits far outweigh the time. This has proved invaluable to those who invest properly in getting in the expertise to plan this swiftly.*

Review every year to ensure it is current – Consider how you manage professional development and currency, so use distance learning, e.books, videos, CDs, etc.: be lateral in your thinking – offer choice and keep the systems agile.

Get clarity on employment legislation – having staff on variable or fixed contracts may be attractive – but check employment rights. Build in reviews that allow you to change processes if you find the business is suffering, change of clients or work, etc..

Develop a mentoring and coaching culture – one where individuals are welcomed and encouraged to be open about their career aspirations. This will help to manage their choices within the business, to ensure retention, promotion and business development. Career titles may not be the key motivators.

Identify what the motivators and ambitions are – use the Performance Appraisal discussions to identify what the real career ambitions are – have a process for flushing out those who do not want partnership – and fast track them to comparative rewards. Do not penalise what you may feel is a lack of ambition.


· One firm introduced a child care voucher scheme on 1st April ’02, it was inoperable until it was revised administratively in November ’04 – a huge de-motivator.

· An in-house legal department introduced a bicycle purchasing scheme in March ’03. The reimbursement took a further 11 months to come through! Hopeless!

· Yet another firm declared a bonus just for fee earners – and took 10 months to tell individuals what their targets were – so they were unable to track their own progress. It reduced productivity by 10%!

Scope for Options:

Flexible working hours: if looking at flexible working patterns, pilot this to departments where the type of work lends itself to flexible hours, working from home, etc., then tackle less obvious departments with some solid experience and success behind you.

– Allow staff to work out how to manage this – buy in a computerised rosta system to plan/manage days in lieu, holidays which increases levels of trust and faith. (ROR)**

Use sabbaticals to regenerate those who are becoming de-energised after, say 10 years service, maybe link this to charitable work options to provide a more rounded person.

Technology makes home-working more practical and attractive – start slowly so that you can monitor this.

De-equitise / reduced profit share for those partners who would like to work fewer hours, or contribute less to practice development – this will require openness and honesty – see Partners agreement at top of this list.


If Generation X+1 is looking for all these variable work – life balances and you are now going to offer them, then tell everyone!! Blast this from the roof tops!! There is no time to waste, Generation X+1 is with us now – who knows what Generation X+2 will want!

Agile and flexible firms will attract and retain the best of the best. You need to be innovative and experimental. Accept that you might get some of these moves wrong – recognise the 4 C’s:

Consultation – as widely as possible, there will be lots of other ideas;
Communication – as often and as widely as possible
Clarity of purpose – about what you are seeking to do – no hidden agenda
Commitment – all the time, no matter what!

Patricia Wheatley Burt (FCIPD) is Principal Consultant, Coach and Trainer for Trafalgar – The People Business Limited.
For more information please contact her on:
Tel: +44 20 7565 7547
Mobile: +44 7973 721 859


For more information on issues facing legal careers in the future, please see the article: Generation X +1 – The Legal Profession’s Achilles’ Heel? By Patricia Wheatley Burt (FCIPD).