The same old story

Law firms will never learn. If you turn the clock back to the 1990’s economic boom, you’ll find that firms were experiencing exactly the same problem. Work was flooding through the doors, but there weren’t enough associates to staff the deals. In some cases firms were so frantic that they had to turn deals away.

But as soon as the boom ended, so did firms’ need for associates. Indeed, during the last economic slump a month wouldn’t pass without one firm or another axing another swathe of associates.

Jonathan Glass, a director at Glass Consultancy, says: “At the moment almost every practice area will take on anyone with good experience, and of course when the slowdown kicks in they’ll cut back. It’s the old boom and bust story that the legal profession never learns from.”

Clifford Chance, Eversheds, Osborne Clarke, Linklaters and Taylor Wessing all made huge cutbacks. There was a stage when making redundancies almost became some sort of warped badge of honour for managing partners.

So here we go again. The economy is booming and law firms have deals coming out of their ears. In order to deal with the demand firms are on massive recruitment drives. But it’s an exercise in futility because there aren’t enough associates out there.

Firms are tackling the problem by stepping up their recruitment drives in Australasia, South Africa, Canada and even further afield, with India and Malaysia now in their sights. But these imports are only a small step towards solving a gigantic problem.

Thankfully a number of firms have finally recognised that the key to tackling this problem is holding on to existing talent. That doesn’t mean sticking plasters on the cracks – its means looking at everything from remuneration to workload.

Funnily enough, Linklaters, which pioneered the ‘profit through redundancy’ strategy during the last recession, is taking the initiative. Earlier in the year the magic circle firm unveiled a number of measures to make life more bearable for its associates.

Freshfields is understood to be looking at a number of initiatives to retain associates, including better training and mentoring. Both firms have also reviewed how work is allocated to corporate associates, a move now being explored by Herbert Smith.

It’s great that firms are making moves to become all cuddly, but don’t be fooled – it’s borne out of desperation. Don’t be surprised by a change of mood when the profit per equity partner starts to sag.