Law firms’ pick ’n’ mix

There’s no getting away from it. The news this week is dominated by partner moves. On the whole we shy away from overplaying them, but over the past 10 days there have been so many they’re impossible to ignore.

But what is of real interest is what lies behind them. Such fluidity at a senior level is an obvious by-product of restructures at the big firms, which in itself throws up a number of interesting issues. The management at Macfarlanes, BLP and DLA Piper, to name just three, have seen specific opportunities to build out in particular areas – notably finance, where the larger firms have been overweight. Most managing partners are relishing the opportunity to pick from an enormously enlarged talent pool. As new Taylor Wessing chief Tim Eyles quipped in The Lawyer UK 200 this year: “We’d be happy to speak to any partner who feels they’re an overperformer in an underperforming firm.”

However, virtually no partner from the bigger City practices is able to guarantee any book of ­business, although you do hear of a certain amount of delusion on this score. Their former firms have spent years creating enormous defence ­mechanisms through institutionalising work. If you’re the nineteenth partner on the Barclays account, you’re hardly likely to be able to take away a chunk of ­business – especially when there’s so ­little work to start with at the moment.

That isn’t to say that magic circle partners can’t thrive at less institutional firms, although some of them may have to change their habits. And what an ex-magic circle lateral can do is provide their new firm with an insight into an existing client, as well as highly specialised deal knowledge.

Hiring in partners at this point in the cycle ­certainly sends out a ­positive signal. You might think that since this simultaneously puts a brake on ­associate prospects it would be unpopular internally. But as our survey in association with YouGov demonstrated last week (and it’s borne out by ­highly unscientific, anecdotal evidence from ­managing partners), the level of engagement on the part of ­senior associates has actually increased.

Meanwhile, mid-tier managing partners can enjoy some nice shopping for cheap talent this autumn. The sales have come early.