According to research by management consultancy Edward Drummond, 72 per cent of partners at the UK’s top 10 law firms are aged 50 or under – whilst this is only the case for 60 per cent at UK law firms overall. It also shows that on average, partners at top 10 law firms are almost two years younger than the national sector average – 46.7 years compared to 48.4 years.
Edward Drummond attributes this to the aggressively meritocratic nature of leading law firms, where top talent tends to be promoted earlier and older partners tend to be moved aside more pro-actively to make room for younger partners or as their income generation slows.
This can present a good opportunity for smaller, mid-tier firms to hire experienced partners who wish to continue their careers rather than retire early. Gareth Ward, a partner at Edward Drummond says: ‘The more rapid lifecycle of partners at the biggest law firms can give smaller, mid-tier firms a chance to snap up high profile partners with an impressive track record – but taking on a new partner is a big investment for these firms, so it’s a decision that needs to be taken carefully.’
Smaller firms need to ensure that these partners are likely to add real value beyond the prestige they bring with them. Firms need to be able to identify those candidates who are not only ambitious to build up their new practice but who also have realistic prospects of bringing in enough new business to cover their costs.
Some prospective new partners may overestimate their ability to bring clients with them, as large law firms tend to ensure that key client relationships are institutional rather than personal to individual partners. Departing partners may appear to have a strong standing among clients and contacts, but that the strength of those relationships may be over-played and their clients’ willingness to change firm not as high as anticipated.
In many cases, partners may also find their hands tied, in terms of marketing, by their exit arrangements with their old firm. Mr Ward says: ‘Hiring partners from top firms can be something of a catch for smaller firms but while many still have a lot to offer, it’s important to establish what they can actually bring to the table in practical terms.
‘Sometimes there can be disconnection between what the firm thinks they’re hiring, based on what partners believe they can deliver, and the reality.’