Make the hard road to legal partnership easier to tread

YOUNG lawyers face an uphill struggle in their battle to reach partnership. Rapid, pre-recession growth in legal services seemed to offer so much to graduate lawyers. But this growth has stalled, and now opportunities for internal promotion are severely restricted. Many will feel frustrated that previous avenues for progression have appeared to close off.

Jeremy Black, partner in Deloitte’s professional services group, says that these economic adjustments have resulted in a “fundamental change in the career path for graduate lawyers.” A previously “high chance of an ultimate promotion to partner” has been reduced to a slimmer likelihood. But the news is not all grim. Both the economic background, and regulatory changes following the 2007 Legal Services Act, are creating new opportunities to thrive, despite all the bad news. Young lawyers just need to adapt to survive.

Black says that the relative ease with which lawyers could previously reach partnership were “predicated upon firms achieving exponential growth.” Although it’s not impossible that such growth could return, the key stumbling block for a young lawyer’s career prospects is a negative, cautious attitude among law firms. “Previous recessions have been regarded as temporary blips by the legal sector, which has been able to recover within a few years. However, this recession has transformed the legal landscape, and a return to previous levels of growth are not expected for a long time.”

Understanding this reticence is vital. As in any hierarchical structure, career prospects are dependent on adjusting personal priorities and skills to the needs of the wider organisation. As Black says, “law firms will continue to focus on motivating their upcoming stars through interesting work and, possibly, international opportunities.” If you can engineer your own career and skills growth towards your firm’s aspirations, you will be more likely to be nurtured in turn.

Of course, each firm will have its own ambitions. But Guy Adams, director and head of private practice Europe at Laurence Simons, a specialist legal recruiter, highlights one area that will prove vital in coming years. Those that have “mastered the business development side of being lawyer,” particularly those who are adept at “creating strong client relationships” will do well. Black adds that “there may be opportunities for those in the sector that are very IT literate.” By developing these particular skills, in line with both broad market trends and specific firm ambitions, lawyers could ease their rise, despite wider difficulties.

The Legal Services Act of 2007 sought to liberalise the market for legal services in England and Wales. As a consequence, various legal activities no longer have to be carried out by solicitors or barristers. Law firms are also now able to accept external investment.

While to some degree precipitating expansion, this liberalisation is likely to limit career prospects for some. Black believes “it will inevitably reduce opportunities for those with low level legal skills and limited legal training.” Low value, large volume work will be outsourced, and young lawyers may find it more difficult to gain exposure to the full range of legal skills at the beginning of their career.

But regulatory changes also create opportunities. Many lawyers will no longer have to deal with the more tedious administrative work. As such, more challenging areas of practice can be focused on – a chance to showcase excellence and promise. Of key importance in taking advantage of these new challenges is finding a specialism and mining it competitively. “Become immersed in the area in which you want to practice,” says Adams, “both internally within the firm and externally within the wider market.”

Straitened times may mean that it is more difficult for young lawyers to reach partnership. But it’s certainly not impossible. As Black says, you just need a “unique selling point,” a way of “standing out from peers in an increasingly competitive market.”
What this selling point should look like is more difficult to determine. But a strong ability to build relationships with clients – in other words, to bring in money – will never prove unattractive.

And be adaptable. Be flexible and drive your career forward by developing skills to your firm’s advantage. But equally, if your development seems to have stalled, don’t be afraid to consider a move to another firm, or even to an in-house position. Sensible lawyers will consider all possibilities.