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A third of lawyers feel career progression blocked by too few retirements

Posted by: Laurence Simons 07/08/12
  • Number of partners retiring each year has fallen by a third in the last 15 years
  • Total number of solicitors has risen at twice the rate of partners over same period

One in three (33 per cent) lawyers within private practice think their career progression is being stifled by a lack of opportunity within their firms, according to research conducted by international legal recruitment specialists Laurence Simons.*

In a survey of more than 200 lawyers working in private practice, one in seven (15 per cent) feel their pursuit of partnership is being hindered by the reduced number of partners retiring in their firm. This indicates that the 30 per cent decrease in partner retirement and those leaving the profession each year (down from 12 per cent to 8 per cent) over the last 15 years** is having a knock-on effect on the career paths of those throughout the legal sector. Just seven per cent of lawyers specified ‘a lack of colleagues moving to work for other firms’, as their rationalisation as to why their climb up the legal ladder has decelerated.

Despite the fall in the number of partner retirements, the average annual rise in the number of solicitors (3.2 per cent) since 1990 has not been matched by the growth of partners (1.8 per cent). The total growth in the number of solicitors over this period (89 per cent) has therefore been more than twice that of partners (40 per cent). This has led to a bottleneck of lawyers competing for positions which have a decreasing turnover rate.**

Guy Adams, director co-head of Private Practice at Laurence Simons comments,
“Many solicitors are finding their career path blocked by those who have already made partner. While we have seen an increase in the number of solicitors, the number of partners hasn’t risen as significantly. The decrease in retirement figures has had a negative effect on promotion opportunities at all levels. Where previously, years of tenure guaranteed a relatively quick succession up the corporate ladder, lawyers now have to consider alternative career strategies in order to achieve promotions.

An analysis of 200 partner profiles from the top 28 firms in the UK shows the average partner in the UK is aged 44 and has been with their current firm for 11 years, an indication that most partners have not joined their current firm at partner level but have taken the internal route to partnership. ***

Of the 25 per cent of partners that have been at their current firm for less than three years, one can presume the majority took the external route to partner level. The average age of partners who are not “home-grown” is just 40, four years younger than their counterparts who decided to take the internal path.

Guy Adams explains,
“We’re seeing a clear divide between those who feel their best chance of reaching partner lies in attempting to rise through the ranks at their current firm, and those who feel that staying at their firm may narrow their options. For those who choose the internal route, they have the benefit of experience with the firm and of being a known quantity which can help accelerate them. However those considering an external move give themselves access to the whole market, broadening their opportunities.”

Retirement figures aside, the unstable economy means increased competition for top positions is set to rise further.

Guy Adams adds,
“An increased emphasis has been put on creating as lean a business structure as possible in order to safely ride the latest economic instability and law firms are no exception. This restructuring has led to fewer partner positions becoming available despite the consistent flow of new talent into the lower tiers of firms. This problem is exacerbating the impact fewer partner retirements is having on the lack of opportunities available to those with progression in mind.”

* From a survey of 209 lawyers working in private practice conducted between 26th July and 6th August
** Data based on Law Society Statistical Reports 1990 - 2011 and Entry to the Solicitor's Profession 1980-2011.
*** From a sample of 200 partners from the top 28 UK law firms

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