Lawyers weigh up loyalty and lucre

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time when a job in a City law firm was for life. Now the typical lawyer's career path will often involve several successively better paid lateral moves. If the position is not yet quite as fluid as that in investment banking or mainstream corporates, where even chief executives are showing themselves sus-ceptible to rival offers, it appears that old-style loyalty to the firm is being replaced by greater emphasis on indiv-iduals and the pay packets they can attract.

Despite these developments, lawyers are still more reticent than bankers to talk about money, and there seems to be no end to the euphemisms adopted by those who would rather not admit to being tempted by the packages on offer.

When Sean Lippell, senior partner in Leeds with the Arthur Andersen affiliate firm Garretts, left to join Addleshaw Booth & Co earlier this month it was "a fantastic opportunity", while Lovell White Durrant's Robert Kidby welcomed the arrival at his firm of DJ Freeman partner Andrew Sanders and Nabarro Nathanson partner Dion Panambalana as a "collision of interests". Money, you would think, is barely a consideration.

But the truth is that firms are offering bigger and bigger financial rewards, and lawyers are finding them difficult to resist. The advertisement for the first pounds 1m lawyer earlier this year was further evidence that filthy lucre appears to drive some lawyers' ambitions. It was no coincidence that the firm behind the advert was American. In the past five years US firms have made a concerted effort to lure away "rain-making" partners from snug jobs in City partnerships.

More recently, the accountants have followed suit as the momentum towards multi- disciplinary practices gathers pace. There is even competition between the accountants' own associated law firms for each others' prize fee-earners.

For years, the senior partners of even large accountancy firms have lamented their inability to match the packages on offer at City institutions, where six-figure bonuses and stock options are the norm.

Weil Gotshal & Manges is typical of a start-up American law firm with strong links to its mother business in New York. It has managed to capture a number of leading corporate lawyers, including most recently Michael Francies from Clifford Chance. Another partner who recently joined is Rachel Hatfield from Linklaters. While she acknowledges that some lawyers are driven solely by big cash deals she says: "I think there is a real limit to the pulling power of money."

Bill Richards, managing partner at City law firm Lawrence Graham, says that in the past two years his firm has picked up a number of key lateral hires. "From what they are telling me there is much greater competition, especially at partner level," he says.

Vanni Treves, the former senior partner of City law firm Macfarlanes, says he has detected a "colossal" change. "I have seen the situation change where even the biggest and best law firms are losing lots of partners. Taking loyalty for granted is a huge mistake."

He gives three reasons for this. Firms are getting bigger and bigger so that it's more difficult to retain the "ethos of partnership". The bigger firms have hundreds of partners all over the world, many of whom have never met each other. Second, partners are more aware of what they are worth and recruitment agencies are more aggressive in selling people. Third, Mr Treves argues, some firms are less profitable than others. Partners who believe they are making a disproportionate contribution to the partnership are more likely to become dissatisfied. And there are, of course, just as many euphemisms for law firms with stagnant fee incomes.