Are you cut out for partnership?

Male or female, corporate or finance and size of firm all influence your chances of making partner at a big UK firm. The Lawyer provides a comprehensive breakdown of the factors in play

At their recent partnership conference Freshfields Bruckhaus ­Deringer partners made a decision. They would introduce targets for ­female partners, seeking to address the firm’s weak diversity statistics by promoting more women.

At the moment the average Freshfields partner is not female. Instead, based on promotions over the past five years, he is male, Oxbridge-educated, white and, when he was promoted, was eight or nine years’ qualified. He also trained at the firm. The bulk of his career has been spent at 65 Fleet Street, where he works still, untempted by the lure of the US dollar.

There are of course nuances when you look for a similar picture in ­different practice groups or at other firms. Corporate and finance partners at Allen & Overy (A&O) and Clifford Chance are less likely to have trained at their firms.

Linklaters partners are more likely to hail from overseas than their ­counterparts at Freshfields.

But for the first time The Lawyer’s analysis of partner promotion data since 2008 has thrown up a picture of the sort of lawyer who is currently making partner at the top UK firms.

Reigning men

Despite all the talk about diversity, the fact remains that the characterisation of an average Freshfields partner as white, male and privileged is still representative of the profession as a whole. Across the past five years women made up 27.7 per cent of all promotions at the UK’s top 20 firms, with this proportion ranging within each firm from 8 per cent at Taylor Wessing to 52 per cent at Irwin Mitchell.

In the magic circle, that proportion ranges from 21.4 per cent at A&O to 28.6 per cent at Clifford Chance. ­However, in corporate and finance, both accounting for 120 promotions over five years across the top 20, ­female representation plummets.

Over the top 20 UK firms as a whole, women made up 22.5 per cent of corporate promotions and just 18.3 per cent of finance promotions. Female representation in these practice areas was less than 20 per cent across all the magic circle firms except ­Clifford Chance, while nine firms have made up no female finance partners at all in the past five years.

This year’s promotion round did show some improvement, with the overall proportion of women in the class of 2012 rising to 32.8 per cent. Developments such as Freshfields’ female partner targets may improve things in the future, although this is yet to be proven, with the profession remaining deeply sceptical about such targets.

Keep on keepin’ on

Freshfields’ retention rates from training contract through to partnership are impressive, particularly in corporate. Eight out of the nine partners made up in corporate in the UK over the past five years trained at the firm – that is, if you include this year’s new corporate partner, US-born and educated Doug Smith, who joined straight out of law school in New York. The exception is Jennifer Bethlehem, who trained at Nabarro.

For finance, the number of ­partners who were also Freshfields trainees drops slightly, with five out of eight partners promoted since 2008 having trained at the firm.

The exceptions were Simone Bono, ­recruited from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in 2011 and made up in that year’s promotion round; Australian Michael Steele, hired in February 2008 and made up this year; and Geoff O’Dea, also promoted this year.

The picture at Freshfields is reflected across the UK top 20. Those made up in corporate are slightly more likely to have trained at the firm promoting them. Just over half (54.2 per cent) of corporate promotions at the top 20 in the past five years trained at the firm, while 50 per cent of finance partners said the same.

Intriguingly, the trend is reversed when men and women are examined separately. Only 40.7 per cent of ­female corporate partners trained at the firm that promoted them, against 57 per cent of male corporate partners. However, 59.1 per cent of female finance partners were also trainees at their firm against 48 per cent of male finance partners.

The only 100 per cent trainee-to-partner figure in the top 20 is at Slaughter and May in finance. The firm made up three finance partners since 2008, all of whom trained there. But otherwise, the data shows that the days when someone joined a firm as a trainee, or articled clerk, and stayed until ­retirement are well and truly gone.

Of the magic circle, A&O has the lowest trainee-to-partner statistics, with just four out of seven corporate partners and six out of 15 finance partners having trained at the firm.

“We’ve always been very focused on attracting the very best people and then developing them to be excellent business lawyers,” says Freshfields HR director Kevin Hogarth of the firm’s trainee-to-partner strategy. “We recognise that from time to time we need to recruit from outside the firm where we don’t have the skills and experience internally. But at associate and partner level it makes sense to nurture the talent we have.”

Global finance head Stephen Kensell suggests that the lower ­number of partners in finance who have come all the way through from trainee to the top is indicative of the modern nature of finance practices.

“That’s telling you a story about the fact that finance is still an ­international growth area,” he says, adding that A&O is always open to hiring associates “of the right type” for its finance team.

Outside influence

Thirteen corporate and finance ­partners in the magic circle made up recently did not train at their firms because they began their careers overseas – six in Australia, five in the US and one each from New Zealand and India.

Linklaters has the most foreign-trained partners from the past five years, having made up two Australians and one Kiwi in finance and one Australian and one American in corporate. A&O promoted two Americans in finance in the past two years, while both of Clifford Chance’s new London-based corporate partners this year are Australian.

While this trend is likely to ­continue to some extent, some predict a slowdown in the number of lawyers moving from the Antipodes to the UK. Exchange rates mean the financial incentive is gone, and with more of the magic circle and other big international firms opening their own offices in Australia, ambitious young lawyers no longer need to move ­overseas to find the type of work ­traditionally done out of the City.

“There’s maybe slightly less allure in coming to Europe now,” contends Kensell, who admits that he had no intention of staying in the UK when he moved from Australia in the 1990s to join A&O. “There was a time when that was the thing you needed to do. The thing people need to get over is the world isn’t all about London any more – it’s definitely multifaceted.”

Linklaters corporate head Jeremy Parr says his firm relied more on associates from Australia and similar jurisdictions in the past than now.

“My sense would be that the ­number of associates in our firm who are Australian, and who may choose to stay and seek to become partners, is fewer than it would have been a few years ago,” Parr reveals.

He adds that this is due in part to Linklaters trying to reduce the “volatility” of its associate numbers and also promotions in recent years. The firm has a more consistent ­promotion pattern than those of its rivals, particularly in corporate, over the past few years.

“Election to partner is a very long-term and important strategic decision,” Parr stresses. “You shouldn’t therefore be basing the number of partners that you elect on the back of financial ups and downs. Our policy is that the partners we elect will be

with us for a very long and successful career.”

Hogarth at Freshfields echoes the ‘long-term’ argument, saying that “the decision to elect a partner is a 25-year investment”.

True Brit

Indeed, the growing internationalisation of the legal market, and the ­arrival of US firms in London seeking to attract high-level partners to launch English law practices, has not had a marked impact at the junior end of partnerships.

Recent moves to US firms included Linklaters’ Stephen Blackshaw to ­Sidley Austin and Freshfields’ Simon Witty to Davis Polk & Wardwell, both of whom were promoted before 2008.

But the retention rate for more ­junior partners among the top 20 in corporate and finance is impressive. Just 11 out of 120 corporate lawyers promoted since 2008 have upped sticks for different firms, with ­another two going in-house and one choosing an entirely new career.

DLA Piper and Ashurst have both lost three of their corporate partners made up since 2008. All three of the Ashurst partners quit for US firms, while DLA Piper lost Julian Matthews and Kiran Sharma from the class of 2008 to Dundas & Wilson and Ropes & Gray respectively and 2009 promotion David Williams to Simmons & Simmons.

Half of the top 20 have retained all of the corporate and finance partners they have made up in recent years. The high retention rates of recently promoted partners belie the efforts of US firms in particular to launch English law practices in London.

In finance only four partners have left the firm that promoted them. DLA Piper lost two new finance partners: Liz Sweeney, promoted in 2008, left for Manchester’s EOS Law in early 2011, while Paul Kirkby moved to Greenberg Traurig in June 2010, just over a year after being promoted.

Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) partner Vanessa Heap, promoted in 2011, left in September for Pinsent Masons. But BLP strengthened its ­finance team in turn in January this year when it announced the hire of Clifford Chance partner Prashanth Satyadeva, some four years after his promotion in 2008.

Despite a recent restructuring of its partnership, Linklaters is one of the firms not to have seen any departures of recently promoted partners. A&O and Freshfields also boast 100 per cent retention of their most junior partners. Clifford Chance is the magic circle exception: in addition to Satyadeva, the firm also bade farewell to corporate partner Nigel Clark in June 2011 as he moved to Weil Gotshal & Manges.

The state of the economy could well play into the high retention rates. With M&A volumes still a long way off those of the pre-crisis ­heydays, it may well be that someone who has just made partner at a top firm is reluctant to chance a move, even to a high-paying US outfit.


This way up

So what should a young, ambitious associate at a magic circle firm be thinking of doing to ensure partnership? The statistics show that staying put and hoping that your bosses might appreciate your loyalty when it comes to considering you for partnership is not necessarily the best strategy, unless perhaps you are a corporate lawyer at Freshfields.

Linklaters’ Parr believes where a lawyer trained has no bearing on ­promotion. “We’re completely indifferent to that – when we look at the criteria for partnership, the number one criteria is quality,” he asserts.

But bearing in mind that pretty much every associate at a magic ­circle firm will have proved themself in qualitative terms, what else might swing management around to ­making you up?

Being willing to relocate overseas for at least a portion of your career could be an advantage, particularly at Linklaters. In corporate two of Linklaters’ 11 promotions went overseas on secondment as associates, while David Holdsworth spent time in Tokyo in 2010 following his promotion in 2009. On the finance side Yushan Ng was seconded to New York as an associate, Toby Grimstone went to Singapore and James Martin moved to Dubai in December 2008 after his promotion in May that


If you are female and in corporate your best chances of being made up based on past statistics are at Linklaters. Outside the magic circle Pinsent Masons has made up the highest proportion of women in ­corporate. In finance the best magic circle firm for women is A&O, while DLA Piper has made up the most women in this area over the past five years.

Senior partners suggest that being able to prove a business case is now more important than ever for prospective partners and is something that is being looked at as early on as four or five years’ PQE.

“The skills and qualities required of a partner at Clifford Chance have always focused on the very highest-quality legal skills, leadership and people management capabilities,” says learning and development partner Julia Clarke. “Commercial and business acumen, with the ability to win business and strengthen client relationships, have always been a vital part of the mix, but are increasingly important factors.”

Hogarth agrees, saying prospective partners need a breadth of skills to ­become trusted business advisers and not just “excellent legal advisers”.

The fate factor

One thing that cannot be controlled by individuals, however, is the ­impact of the economic and legal market on a firm’s promotion ­patterns. While some may insist that they look for the long-term view in promoting, the statistics show clearly that the economic cycle does play a large role in promotion patterns.

With no sign of this changing, probably the best thing an associate at a top UK firm can do to achieve better partnership prospects is simply be the best lawyer and the best client relationship builder possible.

Lit up

This year’s partner promotion was the biggest UK round in four years, driven by cautious optimism, particularly in corporate and real estate. Both practice areas saw their largest partner intakes since 2008, while finance dipped only slightly from 2011’s intake of 24.

Our analysis of promotions takes in the full economic cycle, from the bumper promotion round of 2008, when 167 lawyers were made up in the UK’s top 20 firms, through the gloom of 2010, to the steadier figures of this year and last year.

The figures are dominated by litigation, although this is skewed somewhat by Irwin Mitchell. As a firm that has made its name and turnover dealing with complex personal injury and similar pieces of contentious work, it is natural that the bulk of its promotions have fallen under the broad category of litigation.

However, even bearing this in mind, the pattern of promotions over the past five years follows a cycle: when M&A work is down, corporate and finance promotions are also down, but litigation is up. The figures prove what many have been relating anecdotally for some time and show that firms have been thinking strategically about who they make up.

The magic circle dominates in corporate and finance promotions, accounting for 28 per cent of corporate promotions and 39 per cent of finance. DLA Piper and Eversheds made up 10 and 11 partners respectively in corporate over the past five years, while DLA Piper also made up 15 in finance, meaning these two practice areas account for a fair chunk of the firm’s 69 UK promotions recently.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Freshfields has made up more partners in litigation than its competitors in the magic circle recently, promoting seven litigators against nine corporate lawyers and eight finance lawyers. It is also the only magic circle firm to promote any competition lawyers recently.

Like Clifford Chance, the number of promotions at Freshfields slumped sharply between 2008 and 2009, from 10 to just two.

A third of Freshfields’ promotions have been female, but women were overlooked at the firm in the UK this year.

Allen & Overy

Allen & Overy (A&O) made up the same number of partners as Clifford Chance over the past five years, and indeed the profile of those promotions is pretty similar. The emphasis was on finance, with corporate also featuring highly and the balance of the promotions being in litigation, employment, real estate and risk management.

The lowest number of promotions came in 2010, when A&O’s total promotions comprised two finance partners.

Promotions have been skewed heavily towards male associates. No UK women were made up in either 2010 or 2011, although this year’s promotion round of six saw three men and three women promoted to the partnership.


Linklaters’ promotions have been split fairly evenly between corporate, finance and other practice areas and unusually fairly evenly across each year.

While other firms slashed promotions in 2009, Linklaters made up six, one fewer than the previous year. Six were also promoted in 2011 and 2012 and eight in 2010, more than any of its magic circle rivals.

Outside corporate and finance it has promoted two in each of litigation, employment and IP/IT and three real estate and three regulatory and funds lawyers. The firm has favoured men over women in each year, bringing the total number of male promotions to 24 against nine females.

Clifford Chance

Half of Clifford Chance’s UK promotions in the past five years were in finance and another quarter in corporate, leaving just seven spots for other practice areas. The firm made up one litigator in each of 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012, as well as two tax partners in 2008 and employment partner Sonia Gilbert in 2011.

The firm has scaled back its promotions dramatically in the UK since 2008. In that year 11 partners were made up in the City, but the firm made just three UK romotions in a total round of 17 in 2009 and has since kept internal promotion levels fairly stable.

In 2008 all but one of Clifford Chance’s promotions were male, but this year the firm promoted three women and one man in the UK, to bring the total number of female promotions to eight out of a total of 28.