Navigating changes as partners in law firms

Posted in: Career Change

Partners of law firms face a multitude of challenges right now.  Unease within partnerships can have both external and internal dimensions.  Externally, the worlds of clients of these firms have become more difficult: budgets are being cut, support for new investment can be hard to secure and transactional activity continues to be subdued.  The internal legal capability of many corporates has also increased significantly in recent years.  Much more cautious positions are being taken in businesses, governments and other sectors.  As a result, work is scarce, and hard to win, across many practice areas in these firms. 

Then, within firms themselves, partners may also be addressing the entry of foreign competitors, mergers and alliance activity while encountering widespread challenges to long-standing business models.

The consequence of these changes is that many individual partners must now contemplate significant career shifts – within their firms to different roles, beyond their firms to new practices, or to quite new activities with a corporation , within boutiques (whether existing or startup), and maybe to portfolios of activities.  These are changes not often contemplated (and prepared for) in the trajectory to partnership level.  For individuals for whom the journey to partnership, and the subsequent consolidation within the partnership, has been stretching and all consuming – almost self-defining – changes of this character are confronting, and often rejected.

In the following paragraphs we outline some useful perspectives and activities to help a partner work up an effective pathway in the current context. 

Accept – and begin to work with some realities

There will be winners, who may get to continue to secure the high remuneration drawn by many partners in recent years.  But there will be fewer of them, and many, many more who must come to terms with much narrower differences between partner remuneration and the remuneration derived by others in their professions.

As many former corporate leaders have found, life can in fact go on with much lower incomes.  The sooner present realities are accepted – and necessary changes in lifestyles planned and implemented – the easier the next steps become.  This is not to say that new ventures and new careers might not be conceived with great rewards in due course, but change may require a lower, or less secure, income for a period.  Denying this reality can lead to wasted time and opportunity.

Work on what matters

Change, or the likelihood of it, is always going to be better navigated if you can take stock for a time and work up a picture of what you want from the next decade: what you would like to look back on with satisfaction.  This is a time for carefully unpacking the experience and learnings of the past, to identify signature strengths, gaps in capabilities which may need attention, and for anchoring next steps and desired outcomes around the advice of those close to you.  This may be a time for appraising the costs and consequences of a past life, and changing some priorities. If these two perspectives can be taken, the rest becomes a great deal easier!

Maintain a broad perspective on things

In the context we describe, one response of many individuals is to knuckle down, work harder in their field and absolutely focus on this at the expense of all else.  It’s an understandable response.  Sometimes the driver is the “individual survival instinct” and sometimes the driver is simply a partnership wide imperative around survival as a firm.  However, if an unanticipated change happens (a merger perhaps) or if practice areas are strategically downgraded due to market dynamics, individuals who have done little else but work ever increasing hours in this circumstance can be made very vulnerable.

A better response is to allocate a little time each day to take on a “big picture perspective”.  This entails lifting yourself to a higher level view of the firm, of your professional field, and of external changes in clients and client expectations, competitor activity and evolving business models.  This perspective is likely to be deepened with dialogue, not isolation, and active exploration: most especially in engaging with clients, and with your own firm leaders.  This perspective also requires that you begin being part of the solution, looking across the firm, and taking initiatives directed at survival, or growth in new areas.  This perspective might require courage in, for example, proposing changes in remuneration models, practice areas or staffing.

This may be obvious to some, but it is surprising how often individual partners move to a state of denial in times of economic downturn, and compromise a broader contribution by narrowing their focus to what has worked in the past.

Gather intelligence and build relationships

This is a time for what we call “intelligence gathering interviews”.  Here we are talking about structured interviews with a wide range of people outside the firm to build a much wider understanding of changes in the marketplace.  The process will inform your work within the firm, and your thinking about any potential career shifts beyond the firm.  You should range widely across clients, suppliers, consultants, other professional firms and business acquaintances, which may extend to some quite different connections from your past.

There are specialists in some firms whose unique knowledge in fields such as tax, litigation, M&A and so on may provide secure futures in any context.  But for most of us, specialist knowledge is not all that attracts and retains professional work.  Much of what keeps us employed and engaged with others comes from relationships built on enquiry, respect, enthusiasm, agility and an interest in the worlds and needs of others.

This is a time for working on these skills and finding time for discovery and relationship building. It is easier to do this while you are active in a firm, rather than later, if you do need to move on.  This is a side benefit of the “intelligence gathering interviews”.  In the months and years to come, you may be surprised at how productive these investments of your time may be, in both feeding your insights and opening up hitherto unexamined pathways.

Accept advice – and specialist support if it is offered

At times of change reputable firms put in place appropriate measures to support those affected.  At partner level, a career transition service needs to be comprehensive, provided via peer level consultants who can draw on deep resources, tailored around each individual, open ended – and then closely measured as to quality.  Conventional “outplacement” providers rarely meet these standards.  If support of this kind is offered, go and talk with the proposed provider and test the provider’s depth and quality.  Much of what has been discussed above will be significantly supported with professional resources and guidance.