Law firms are poaching to increase their partner ranks just as much as they are promoting from within, according to Lawyers Weekly partnership data. Claire Chaffey reports
Today (1 July) numerous lawyers across the country awoke to the next chapter of their legal careers by officially joining their law firm's partnership.
These new financial year partner promotions, alongside earlier promotions throughout the first half of 2010 and in addition to lateral appointments during this period, have once again adjusted the dynamics of law firm partnerships across the country - and unveiled some particular trends.
Firstly, it's clear that in the midst of a changing Australian legal market many firms are prioritising the consolidation of their national practices, while the recently arrived global firms are using their global status as leverage to poach some of the industry's best and brightest.
As for the age of new appointees, the vast majority of new appointees are in their 30s (63 per cent), with only 3 per cent of appointees in their 20s (67 per cent of which are women), indicating that early partnership is unlikely, but certainly not impossible.
The results also show a disappointing ratio of male to female partners, with women holding only 18 per cent of new partnership posts.
Despite a narrowing of the gender gap in some firms - which is reflected in their appointments - the dominance of women in the junior ranks is still yet to translate into success at the other end of the spectrum.
Poaching versus nurturing
While many firms, particularly at the larger end of town, saw fewer partner appointments than last year, numerous firms in the mid-tier experienced reasonable growth.
Interestingly, the balance between how this growth occurred, in relation to lateral and internal appointments, was remarkably even, with 48 per cent of appointments over the last six months being lateral and 52 per cent being internal.
One firm which appointed partners in a manner mirroring the statistics was Middletons, which appointed equal ratios of internal and lateral partners over the last six months.
However, according to managing partner Nick Nichola, nurturing young lawyers through the ranks in order to assure quality - despite difficult times in the market - remains a priority.
"It is true the legal market has been challenging and will continue to be so, however so long as we remain committed to delivering the best service imaginable based on quality and value, we will continue to do well," says Nichola.
"These internal promotions signify the firm's commitment to developing the careers of our talented lawyers."
Carter Newell's CEO Peter Ellender says the firm prides itself on promoting from within, and the appointment of James Plumb - who has been with the firm since 2002 when he commenced articles - is consistent with this strategy.
"This recent appointment is very rewarding as James commenced articles with the firm in 2002 and has been promoted through the ranks as his skills developed," he says.
"Our appointments in 2009 were also from within. Our commitment to training, development and providing a career path for our lawyers remains a key firm strategy."
To the contrary, mid-tier firm Maddocks gives high priority to attracting the right talent in order to achieve its strategic goals, and relied primarily on lateral appointments.
"Attracting the right people to facilitate continued expansion in line with our strategic objectives is a crucial issue for an ambitious firm like Maddocks," says CEO David Rennick.
"It goes without saying that attracting and retaining people with great technical and commercial skills and the right cultural fit is central to the continued success and growth of any organisation."
Norton Rose also favours this route, with the majority of appointments being lateral.
According to managing partner Don Boyd, this is largely due to the burgeoning allure of the global firm.
"Our lateral appointments ... reflect a growing attraction to Norton Rose from lawyers at all levels and a cross-section of disciplines," he says.
Tony Holland of global firm DLA Phillips Fox is also confident that their global status is attracting some of the world's best lawyers, though notes that organic growth is important.
"The appointments are ... about us rewarding and recognising our best talent, and we have also leveraged the DLA Piper network, attracting some extremely high calibre partners to our practice."
National consolidation and global alignment
For many firms, it seems that strengthening and maintaining their existing practice dominates the agenda when it comes to appointing partners.
Baker & McKenzie's managing partner Mark Chapple says this is most definitely a priority for the firm.
"The election of our new partners ... reinforces the strength of our national practice and our commitment to providing an environment in which our lawyers can excel and be rewarded for their success," he says.
"It also reflects the strength of our practice in meeting the needs of our Australian and global clients as they take stock of the opportunities presented by this new economic cycle."
Lander & Rogers has also adopted a strategy of national consolidation.
"The promotion of a new partner ... reflects our focus on continuing to build a strong national team of corporate specialists, in line with our broader strategy of growing our senior resources in the various teams across the firm," says chief executive partner Andrew Willder.
But for Norton Rose and DLA Phillips Fox, strategy is heavily reliant on aligning local practice with global practice.
"The new partner appointments are a reflection of our long-term strategic objectives which include working closely with DLA Piper across the Asia Pacific region to create strong international teams of lawyers - in particular in the areas of insurance, corporate and finance and projects," says Holland.
Boyd says Norton Rose is adopting a similar strategy.
"These promotions and appointments reflect our intention to align our strengths with those of the worldwide practice," he says.
The glass ceiling prevails
According to the survey, women are still well and truly behind men in terms of making it to partnership, with only 18 per cent of all partners appointed over the last six months - both promoted and lateral - in the law firms surveyed being female.
Despite this, some firms are experiencing a move towards a more equitable gender balance which is reflected in this year's appointments, with Freehills and KennedyStrang Legal Group actually appointing more women than men.
"It is particularly pleasing to see four out of the six [new partners] are women, which highlights our ongoing commitment to engaging women in successful careers, and promoting an equitable gender balance in senior roles," says Freehills managing partner Gavin Bell.
Gilbert + Tobin is leading the way on breaking the glass ceiling, with 38 per cent of its partnership base being female.