​Are new titles for lawyers extending the path to partnership?

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If a quick browse of profiles on LinkedIn is anything to go by, ‘lawyer’, ‘senior associate’, ‘special counsel’ and ‘partner’ are no longer the only titles available to legal practitioners. Positions such as ‘associate’, ‘managing associate’ and ‘executive counsel’ are increasingly in vogue.
 
Mahlab NSW managing director Lisa Gazis believes the proliferation of new titles in Australia in recent years can in part be attributed to the arrival of international firms, particularly US firms, which often have ‘associate’ titles.

Another factor that contributed to the increased popularity of these new titles was the GFC. With partnership and advancement benchmarks getting higher, and some firms unable to promote as many lawyers as they could in better economic conditions, the introduction of new titles and roles has helped keep lawyers happy and confident about where their careers are heading.

Global top-tier Allens is one of the firms that has introduced new titles for its lawyers in Australia, promoting its first cohorts of associates and managing associates on 1 July this year. 
 
“What firms are probably doing, given that the time to partnership is certainly a lot longer than what it was a generation of partners ago, is looking at ways that they can reward and recognise and continue to incentivise talented lawyers on the path to partnership,” observes Allens director of people and development, Jane Lewis.
 
She explains that the introduction of these roles at Allens was part of a broader review within the firm to adapt the career model to better meet the changing demands in the marketplace.

“One of the things that we identified was that time at senior associate could be a long time - you could be at senior associate once you were a four-year lawyer, and you could be at senior associate when you were a fifteen-year lawyer ... It made sense to call out an additional career stage [of managing associate]."
 
However, in some situations the introduction of such roles has served to slow the advancement to partnership.

According to Mahlab's Gazis, in circumstances where a firm cannot promote someone to partner at a particular point in time, such as when the business case for promotion in a particular practice area can’t be made, the introduction of an additional career milestone can be a good way to provide that lawyer with a new title and a pay increase while the firm works with that lawyer to aim for partnership at a later date.

“What we’re seeing at the moment is partnerships not growing the way they used to, and so what we’re more likely to see is more people holding those titles than in the past as firms try and accommodate those people, because they won’t be able to offer partnerships and they might still need to maintain that level of talent in the business,” she says. 
 
In contrast, Lewis asserts the introduction of the managing associate role at Allens is actually intended to reduce the time it takes to reach partner.

“It’s definitely about providing greater recognition to people along the way," she says. "It’s about being more deliberate; it’s about increasing the scope of responsibility and the autonomy that people have on track to partnership. But actually our intent is to reduce the time to partnership, not further extend it." 

One of the firm’s first appointees to managing associate has since been promoted to partner, effective from next year.

 

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