Partners snared by firm structures

By Lawyers Weekly|03 March 2012

TRAPPED IN THEIR environs, many partners, particularly in large law firms, are unable to leave their unhappy working lives for fear of the rumour mill as well as an inevitable drop in income,…

TRAPPED IN THEIR environs, many partners, particularly in large law firms, are unable to leave their unhappy working lives for fear of the rumour mill as well as an inevitable drop in income, Lawyers Weekly sources have revealed.

Despite a recent flow of top-tier partners into boutique firms, including Blake Dawson Waldron managing partner John Stammers’ move to Cosoff Cudmore Knox, and senior Freehills partner Peter Rose to Johnson Winter & Slattery, many partners feel unable to untangle themselves from the large firm partnership weave.

Former Clayton Utz senior partner Mike Lyons learned several years ago during an in-house seminar that 60 per cent of his partners were either unsatisfied or unhappy. In an exclusive interview with Lawyers Weekly, he claimed he realised at that point that he was not alone.


There is an “internal strife of partners”, said Lyons, in which they are prepared to be miserable and make money. An in-house survey at his former firm revealed that a lot of partners were “knuckling down and doing the job and making money”, but that some were not happy in their jobs.

This unhappiness is derived from various sources. Some partners do not want to risk going on leave because they are concerned that when they come back they will not have the same clients, said Lyons, who is now managing director at SOLS Legal. He remembered one partner telling him, “we are all in partnership here but my biggest competitor is sitting in the office next to me”.

As well, “they share money which creates pressures of its own”. Although accepting there are many happy lawyers, Lyons argued “a lot of people find it difficult”.

Former managing partner at Freehills Melbourne, Paul Montgomery, also acknowledged this trend in which partners feel trapped in their roles. “Many, I don’t think, can see a way out,” he said. Montgomery noted that in “big, high power firms”, partners become totally absorbed. “It’s a 24/7 occupation, which is totally preoccupying, so years roll by and they do nothing about it.”

But former Clayton Utz partner Lyons argued the catalyst for many partners’ unhappiness relates to the culture of the firm they are in. Firms are very different in terms of characteristics, and aspirations vary from firm to firm. “Some have a lifestyle drive, some are standards driven, and many are money driven. Boutique firms can have another driver, where culture is more important,” he said. “There are other pastures that may be greener.”


Montgomery, who is now faculty head of the Centre for Professional Services Management, said firms will make decisions for unhappy partners to leave. “Their performance begins to suffer and so law firms make a choice,” he said.

This is a problem for lawyers who are not happy in their work environment, but who are forced to remain committed to deriving work and income to which they have become accustomed, said Montgomery. “They are trapped to keep up the lifestyle,” he said.

Although some partners find positions in companies, such as John O’Sullivan from Freehills who moved to the Commonwealth Bank, it is difficult to make this move into another industry, Montgomery said.

Another bind is that partners are highly sensitive to the word getting out that they are looking for a job, Montgomery said. Lyons agreed that the most fundamental training lawyers receive is confidentiality. “You don’t even tell your wife, one partner used to say,” he said.

“I think there is no doubt that all partners are petrified of the leak [that they are looking elsewhere]. The rumour mill is a great weakness in the recruitment industry and it can be a serious problem for the partnership to find out one of their number is looking around. And rightly so, loyalty is at the heart of partnerships,” Lyons said.

Lyons added: “Lawyers are conservative creatures, they hunt as a pack so it’s difficult to break away and look elsewhere”. He said because partners are part owners as well as workers, it is quite hard to move around. Occasionally another firm will approach a partner who is wanting to move, and “lightning may strike”, but it may not as well.

Lyons’ legal recruitment company SOLS Legal acknowledges this difficulty in its work practice, he said. The realisation that other partners around him were not happy led him to “break out of the mould” and become involved in law firm recruiting, emphasising helping partners. His experience, he said, is valuable in assisting other partners who are keen to explore other opportunities.

Partners need to ensure the recruitment agency or head hunter they are using to scope opportunities is discrete, Lyons argued. The more senior you are, the more difficult it becomes, he said — “How does a senior partner put out feelers?” But there are ways to make discrete enquiries, he added.

Partners snared by firm structures
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