Law: A legal way to land a million

Lawyers can earn a fortune. But are they worth it?
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The Independent Culture
ARE THE very best corporate lawyers worth pounds 1m a year? It's a question that managing partners of leading law firms have been asking themselves after a US firm advertised for English lawyers, offering them pounds 1m salaries.

Anthony Tomkins, founding partner of legal recruitment consultancy Charles Fellowes, says that one managing partner of a City and regional law firm recently complained to him that since the advertisement appeared, his job had been made more difficult.

The idea that a firm - rumoured to be the second-tier Chicago outfit McDermott Will & Emery - is prepared to pay salaries at the very highest level in London has served only to stoke up professional jealousies.

"Some lawyers in the top law firms," says Tomkins, "are earning pounds 500,000 upwards and they are quite happy. But the lawyers in the regional firms, on say, pounds 350,000, will wonder how close they are getting to that magic pounds 1m figure."

And Peter Scott, managing partner of Eversheds, which has the largest number of lawyers in England and Wales, concedes that the advertisement and the media hype have brought the topic of money on to the top of the agenda.

"It is fairly common ground among most City law firms that the US law firms are putting pressure on remuneration," he says.

Lesley MacDonagh, managing partner of Lovell White Durrant, says that law firms have to be aware of changes in pay structure, but she also questions the real significance behind the kinds of sum being advertised. She suggests that, taking everything into account, the pounds 1m lure may be "illusory".

Typically, a large starting salary would be conditional, and open to renegotiation after two or three years. Crucially, the US law firm will need evidence that the partner is able to bill three or four times his or her salary - in this case pounds 3m to pounds 4m. And Mrs MacDonagh says: "Most real stars are not seduced by the headline starting rates. Other aspects of life at a firm will weigh heavily in deciding to stay or go."

She cites firm loyalty, strong client relationships and a partner's control over his or her working and personal destiny as key issues.

Allen agrees that such lures will not necessarily tempt the "rain-makers" from the the top City law firms. Although they may be on a few hundred thousand less than the pounds 1m mark, the extra cash will not be regarded as a worthwhile trade-off against their "relatively comfortable" lives.

The question still remains: is any lawyer worth pounds 1m?

Mr Tomkins says: "If I put my hand on my heart, I would have to say `no' - a surgeon saves lives, but the market does not work like that."

Mr Scott's view is: "We live in a capitalist country, not a managed economy, so you really have to ask the client if he thinks that the lawyer adds value to the business."

But Mr Allen, an English lawyer working in a US firm, describes pounds 1m as "silly money" for a lawyer. "Let's face it, for all the great good we do in the world, we are overpaid."