Working life can be a grind for junior fee-earners toiling away to pay the school fees of the boss’s children. Who wouldn’t want to be a partner?

Paul Rogerson

Paul Rogerson

Quite a few, it appears. A recent survey by LexisNexis found that most associates were loyal to their firms and intended to stay, but only 25% wanted to make partner at their firm in the next five years. Why so?

The ‘millennial mindset’ is often cited. Solicitors born in the go-getting 1980s and early-1990s are nothing like their parents. They care about ‘work-life balance’ and their mental health – even more so than the Gen Z cohort of 1997 onwards.

This still seems a tad glib. There has to be more to it.

Speaking of 1997, Tony Blair is culpable, according to Paul Bennett, chair of the Law Society’s Leadership and Management Section. For it was New Labour that began piling huge debts on students with the introduction of tuition fees. The partnership model, with its capital investment obligation, means taking on yet more debt to buy into a firm. That is a singularly unappealing prospect for some.

More generally, the ties that bind – the psychological bonds between firms and employees – have weakened as a consequence of hybrid working. Associates may work hard, but they remain ‘semi-detached’ in a way that would have been inconceivable a decade ago.

What else?

Regulation, certainly. The SRA is an increasingly powerful and aggressive regulator. Partners are more exposed than ever before – especially given the growing focus on toxic ‘firm culture’.  

And, of course, there are attractive alternatives to partnership. Over the last 20 years, many who have served their time in large firms have taken the increasingly attractive salaries on offer in-house.

So what is to be done to increase interest in partnership? ‘As always,’ Bennett tells me, ‘the answers lie in training, development and upskilling the profession. These issues and risks can all be overcome and managed, and knowledge empowers.’

Beware, too, ‘shy candidate syndrome’. It is fashionable not to want to be a partner these days. I bet quite a few of those who responded to LexisNexis’s survey in the negative will eventually go on to seek that elevated status.