There has never been more competition between law firms for talented partners and ambitious, capable senior associates who themselves will carve a niche as the partners of the future. In a market in which the best candidates are highly sought after, the quality of opportunities has increased.

Capable partners and senior associates have a wealth of choice and their decision as to which firm to opt for in order to make the most of their journey as a partner is crucial. Let us try to make sense of how one is able to evaluate the plethora of opportunities that are available. I will set out below three typical journeys and how to carry out the critical thinking that will enable a talented senior lawyer to make an informed choice. Let us assume that full access is given to the financials of the prospective firm. The one key question to ask each prospective firm is the same across all three categories. The significance of this question has never been more pronounced as the global changes to the provision of legal services take place.

The question of paramount importance is: “What is the firm’s strategy?”. Choosing a firm with a well thought-through strategy is crucial in order to ensure one’s chosen ship will navigate the storms and fair winds created through the onset of technology, commoditisation and agility and the globalization opportunities emanating from the rapid growth markets.

1 The Global Elite

The choice of many lawyers with an excellent academic background and in the past, often influenced by education or family association. In recent years this route has become open to a broader church of people. Many of the largest global law firms have realized the benefits to attracting a wider demographic and some positively encourage joiners who have gained experience – especially business experience – before embarking on their career as lawyers. At partner level, most movers are from a similar stable although some firms in this category encourage laterals from top quality smaller and boutique firms – often to gain a further foothold in a particular market or to extend a client base. Often a good choice made by those lawyers who have gained top tier international experience as many such firms have a significant global footprint.

This category of firms is by no means homogenous – there are vast differences in culture and working conditions for the senior teams.

A question one should ask oneself and the prospective firm are: “What percentage of your partnership has come from lateral hiring and what percentage is from internal promotions?”. This can shed a valuable light on just how happy a ship one might be joining and it will help to evaluate how geared up the firm is for laterals – both culturally and in terms of fit. Another question to ask is: “What is your onboarding process for new laterals?”. This will quickly illustrate the level of insight and support for a senior joiner.

It is true that many lawyers are at home in this type of firm simply because they believe they would not easily achieve the professional satisfaction they require anywhere else. The top tier certainly pays well. The latest set of figures from the Global Elite show record partner earnings at the upper end of the table. For the top US international firms, partner earnings have never been higher and this is another reason why this type of firm may be a good choice for the right individual.

2 Boutique Law Firms

Most of the global legal markets have examples of this type of firm and their unique selling point is their focus on a particular market or type of law. Boutique does not have to mean small as several have grown to be substantial players in their own right. Neither does boutique need to mean lower profitability, as many of this type of firm has focused in order to drive higher profitability. An important question one should ask this type of firm is: “What opportunities are you targeting in the next three years and how do you envision the firm taking advantage of those?”.

This will allow an evaluation of how that fits with one’s own take on market opportunities in the short to medium term. A further question could be: “What has been your experience of taking on laterals and what measures are in place at the firm to ensure a positive onboarding experience for all parties?”.

3 ABS, ‘Virtual’ or ‘Dispersed’ Law Firms

This type of business structure has become much more common place over the past two years and law firms with an ABS (Alternative Business Structure) offer a variety of options for partners who are confident in their own business base. For those partners, moving into this type of firm can be liberating – allowing the heady combination of being in charge of one’s own destiny yet getting full support for all of the administrative and regulatory pressures placed on partners these days – but with a much bigger financial return than is the norm in many traditional partnership models. A very low number of this category of firms has also put in place a structure that will allow a capable and ambitious associate to nurture and build their own practice within the firm.

One highly enlightened firm has also created the mechanism to allow the ‘owner’ of a developed practice to sell their asset. A reason for being for many partners who have considered retirement, but all too often a barrier to such. Without even asking a question at all, much can be gained from a consideration of how the firm markets itself to prospective joiners – is it a ‘business structure’ first; or a law firm first..? The answer to this can be enlightening. A question one should ask this type of firm is: “What support do you provide to the lawyers in the firm?”. Some models are decentralized for crucial drivers such as marketing support – which puts the emphasis firmly on the lawyer, not the firm. Others provide a full suite of support services. Another question is:

“How will you help me to build my practice and my team?”. Again, the different models provide for a very different response and cost implication to this question.

The three highlighted journeys do not of course cover all such that are available to partners in this competitive legal marketplace, however it is quite common for a senior lawyer to be in a position to consider all three of these options. The current conditions have created a war for talent and thus a vast increase in choice for talented senior lawyers.

In order to discuss the questions raised in this article, please contact Simon Chadwick Chief Executive, Espero Consulting on +44 845 241 2127, Mobile: +44 7985 198 578 or simon.chadwick@esperoconsulting.com.