As summer holidays approach thoughts turn to partnership. But are you chasing the wrong prize? Our co-CEO Guy Setford gives his view.

Congratulations, you’ve survived another six months as a successful lawyer and that much-needed summer break is just around the corner. Chances are that as you grab a few weeks to recuperate, your thoughts will turn to your career and you will ask yourself a few questions. What am I doing this for? Will it lead to partnership? Or, if you are a partner already, is partnership really worth this level of stress? Could there be another solution?

Well, perhaps I can help answer a few of those questions for you, starting with: will this lead to partnership?

10 years to make partner, if you are lucky

According to research by recruiter Origin Legal, published late last year, it takes an average of 10 years to make partner in a top 20 law firm. That’s a decade of exceptional hard work and long hours to reach what used to be this coveted position. I say, used to be, because thinking is changing, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let us first look at this claim of 10 years to make partnership.

I would argue that even that figure is ambitious. The reality is there simply aren’t as many law firms as there used to be, which of course means there aren’t as many partnerships available.

According to the 2013 Law Society Statistical Report, there were 9,807 law firms in England and Wales. In 2016 there were 9,430. Those figures tell us we are in a world where opportunities are shrinking. Your chances of making partnership have fallen.

So, that’s strike one.

Reality of partnership vs fantasy

Strike two against partnership is based on what can happen when you become one. Yes, with it comes increased financial reward, but it also comes with increased responsibility, and inevitably that means more stress and even longer hours. Gone are the days of simply doing your legal work and scrabbling to keep your too-long list of clients happy in order to meet your targets. Suddenly you have to worry not just about your own unrealistic goals, but those too of everyone else in the firm. Do you think dealing with those kind of issues means less time in the office? Of course not, it means more. And managing is no walk in the park, especially not when the team members working for you are under huge stress themselves.

Recent research by the Junior Lawyers Division, in which it surveyed LPC students, paralegals, trainees and junior solicitors, found that 90% of young lawyers had reported feeling under too much emotional or mental pressure at work during that previous month. More than half of those said they “nearly made a mistake” that would not have happened if they weren’t overworked. Now, imagine if you are a new partner tasked with managing a team of these highly stressed young lawyers who feel like they are close to making a major blunder? They’re stressed? Imagine how you feel!

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that for some lawyers all of the above is considered par for the course and they believe the positives outweigh the negatives. The perceived kudos of partnership and the greater financial reward remain appealing despite the pressures that come with it. But for a growing number of lawyers partnership doesn’t make sense. When they look at the pressure, the politics, the hours and even the salary, the figures just don’t add up. They want something better, and these days they can actually have it.

A better way of working

The fact that there is now a very real and very achievable alternative is strike three against the archaic system that is partnership. That alternative is consultancy. Working as a consultant at Setfords means you can enjoy the greatest benefit of partnership, namely increased financial reward, but without any of the negatives.

Through our fee-share scheme you keep up to 80% of what you bill. But you don’t have to worry about targets because we don’t set any. You can earn as little or as much as you like. There is no time spent dealing with managing people because you don’t have any to manage – you only have to worry about yourself and your clients.

There is no time spent squabbling with other partners and enduring office politics because there are no other partners, and you are free to work where you like; that might be your home, or it might be one of Setfords’ offices.

The truth is, for many, partnership is a false victory – simply the beginning of a slightly better paid nightmare. I believe the prize you should be chasing is a better working life as a lawyer. But don’t just take my word for it, the next generation of lawyers understands that too. Research by Eversheds found 39% of junior solicitors believe that the law firm partnership model is outdated, and a third highlighted flexible working as a key concern.

There is a better way of working, and partnership isn’t it. This summer give yourself a real break and start to think differently about your life as a lawyer. Get it right and your entire working life could feel like a holiday.

If you want to know more about becoming a consultant at Setfords go to Drop us a line – we would love to discuss how we can help you gain the rewards aspiring law partners want, but so few actually achieve.

Guy Setford
Co-CEO, Setfords Solicitors

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