A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Archive for December, 2020|Monthly archive page

Partners or owners: the law firm divide

In Articles, Commentary on 14 December 2020 at 9:40 am

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 11 December 2020.

One of the most striking statistics from The Australian Financial Review Law Partnership Survey is the wide variation in the ratio of equity to non-equity partners across Australia’s top 50 law firms.

In some firms, like Colin Biggers & Paisley and McCabe Curwood, only 20 per cent of partners have an equity stake.

At the other end of the spectrum, nine firms report that 100 per cent of their partners have equity. However, partners in these firms are often not on an equal footing. Newly minted partners in these firms can earn as little as 25 per cent of a full share. In other firms, individual partner earnings are based more on an assessment of their annual contribution instead of the level of their shareholding.

Further analysis of the survey data suggests there is no discernible factor that determines the equity ratio. Variations can occur within and across tiers, service range and practice area.

The role of non-equity partner was first introduced as a form of trial period to assess whether a candidate should be made an equity partner. The “partner” title would allow the candidate to command the respect of clients, peers and staff necessary to build a successful practice and prove their worth. Being extra cautious in the final step to equity was prudent given the complexities in dealing with bad choices or established equity partners leaving.

In a similar vein, firms used the non-equity partner role as an entry point for new lateral hires on their way to equity partnership.

Over the past decade, the non-equity partner role has evolved into a de facto career position in some firms with the candidate having little chance of being offered an equity stake.

A large non-equity partner cohort can improve profitability – by lifting leverage and average billing rates – help share some risks and distribute the management load.

Challenges

While there are these benefits, a tightly held partnership does come with potential challenges:

  • An “us and them” schism emerging between the two classes of partner;
  • Flight risk of those non-equities who feel they can get a better deal elsewhere;
  • A lack of drive among non-equities who feel their careers have capped out;
  • A perception of inequity when the firm records super-normal profits that accrue only to a select few;
  • A cynicism that the non-equity role allows the firm to achieve its partner diversity targets without the need to share power;
  • A narrower base of internal funders and underwriters;
  • Duplication of partner communications and meetings; and,
  • A smaller pool of partners to select from for senior leadership roles.

A widely held partnership, on the other hand, faces the risk of being too conservative and too slow to promote top talent. A burgeoning bottleneck at the senior associate level can set the scene for a feeding frenzy for aggressive competitors.

To create a sustainable business and a positive culture, it is critical to make all partners, regardless of stake, feel and behave like business owners. They should be guardians of the firm’s assets and values, while embracing the agreed principles and disciplines of partnership.

Financial gain or pain

With senior equity partners, the money does a fair bit of the talking. The prospect of immediate financial gain or pain can help facilitate a proprietorial mindset.

For those with a little or no equity, their voice is often a bit softer, the risk is a bit higher and the task is that much harder.

The determining factor is the quality of leadership.

It means working with each partner to align firm and individual purpose, communicate what’s expected, provide the requisite support, give and get feedback – and hold them to account.

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