In-house attractions tempt firms' finest

The latest in-house salary survey (page 10-11) might well make depressing reading for those at management levels in the top City firms.

According to the survey, carried out by recruitment consultants Garfield Robbins, senior in-house counsel are now commanding salaries which rival the income of partners in top firms. On top of this, in-house lawyers are being offered benefit packages including share options, company cars and golden hellos, which make the prospect of moving into industry increasingly attractive.

Perhaps the most worrying finding is that it is the two-, three- and four-year qualifieds that are most likely to be lured by the competitive salary packages and better quality of life that companies offer. City firms have a number of options. They can ignore the warning signs, they can enter salary races with the big companies or they can look behind the figures.

Nick Robbins tells The Lawyer: "I would advise any solicitors who don't feel they are in line for partnership after four years that it is definitely worth going in-house." Maybe Robbins' comment hints at something that firms can do. The talented assistants that the survey identifies as being those most likely to defect, entered the law because they are ambitious, not just for money but for new challenges and new responsibilities. They are looking to advance within their firm, not just to earn more, but also to contribute more, to become – in that well-worn New Labour phrase – a stakeholder.

Firms need to focus on what sort of career development programmes they have in place for those lawyers. Is partner status desirable and attainable? In what timescale? What about the talented lawyer who doesn't fit into the accepted mould? Each firm may have different answers to these questions, but how many are even asking them?

If firms ignore or play down those ambitions and assume the more junior members of their team are happy without incentives and goals, then those with the most talent and who are the future of their firms may look for those challenges and career development opportunities elsewhere.