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Shifting Tides: Partner Movement, Regeneration and the Reciprocity of Value

MANAGING PARTNERS of law firms operating in Australia, not surprisingly, continue to be challenged with retaining their clients and profitable relationships, while motivating and leveraging their top and upcoming talent.

Traditionally, as lawyers moved up the ladder, loyalty at the apex was a given. However, the tide has shifted, and our data and conversations confirm there is currently, and has been for some time, a high degree of change. The executive end of the legal market is far from stagnant, with waves of partners regenerating their careers by way of a lateral move.

Receiving a brief from any one of our clients to source partners with portable practices and teams is a regularity. From the perspective of the client, the expectation is that the brief will be able to be filled. Two deductions can be made: firstly, the appetite for growth in many firms is far from being sated. Secondly, when looking to grow, Managing Partners are not thinking twice about asking us to make strategic approaches that will ultimately disrupt the tenure of a lawyer's long-standing relationship with their current firm. The thinking is, ‘it’s just simply business’ and if a better opportunity is presented and if it is in your best long-term interests, why not consider a move?

Interestingly, more money as an incentive to move won’t be enough. Indeed, we frequently reassure our clients that their best partners won’t necessarily leave for a bigger pay packet. Rather, partners will consider leaving their firm because of a perception that they are not being valued for their contribution – a tangible push factor. The collective human need to be appreciated for one’s work should not be dismissed. Couple a partner’s perceived lack of appreciation of their contribution, with the increasing trend of firms holding equity tightly, and the result can be that a partner is ‘suddenly’ on the market. If they are not yet ‘on the market’, but carry resentment, this is arguably, a more dangerous predicament as the partner’s frustration can manifest itself in their current firm. Consider the partner that exceeds their budget, a top biller, but churns through the lawyers in their team. Those disgruntled lawyers go somewhere else and tell their story, often doing untold harm to both the brand of the firm and, more closely, the practice area. The glossiest of brochures and inclusive initiatives can’t undo the damage already done.  Moreover, is it therefore, any wonder that these future partners in years to come won’t even consider moving to firm X because of something they have ‘heard.’

Politics and partner dynamics are never easy to navigate. It is therefore crucial that law firms have a reward and recognition system that is as transparent as possible. The corollary is that ambiguity from the outset will be minimal and more importantly, expectations will be managed. We all want to know where we stand, whether we are an established partner or progressing up the equity ladder. Senior leaders should routinely articulate their vision and strategy so that partners feel connected and part of a team. To achieve unity, there is no one style of leadership that fits all; it’s when there is a lack of genuine leadership that there becomes a problem and partners will contemplate a move.

The way forward is not simple, but in an industry where partners are routinely judged by the value they contribute, it is only reasonable that in turn partners contemplate asking their firm the question, ‘where exactly is the reciprocity’?