Partner numbers shrink as clients cut back

This year’s AFR partnership survey has revealed a spiralling number of partners at the country’s top firms.

This year’s Australian Financial Review Law Partnership survey has revealed spiralling partnership numbers.

Among the large firms, Norton Rose Fulbright had the highest proportion of partner turnover, followed by Ashurst and Gadens.  NRF lost 22 partners, replenished by just 12.

Ashurst head of Australia Phil Breden said the shedding of 20 partners to promote just nine in the past year is reflective of market conditions.  He told the AFR that the firm was retaining a number of senior partners as consultants.

“Firms like Ashurst which operate at the premium end of the market are not immune to the various pressures our clients are facing,” he said.

The number of partners at Allens, HWL Ebsworth and Clayton Utz also declined, the fewest proportion of partner losses at Herbert Smith Freehills, King & Wood Mallesons and Corrs Chambers Westgarth.

Widening competition for firms is causing a shift to offshoring support services and a focus on technology to provide better value for money.  The survey found that firms are working to retain talent and looking to make way for new equity partners by transitioning senior staff to consultant roles.

Allens shed 14 partners but promoted six.  But a decline in partnership numbers isn’t a negative story, managing partner Richard Spurio said.

“In our case it reflects changes in the way we provide our services - more technology, more innovation, different workforce options all impact on how we work with clients and our overall size,” he said.

Allens has developed different types of legal support including multi-disciplinary teams with partners, lawyers, legal project managers, technologists and alternate law specialists.

Lower attrition for King & Wood Mallesons and Herbert Smith Freehills was attributed to opportunities resulting in staff retention and providing value through alternative legal service offerings.

“We have implemented a number of new approaches to legal project management and client service delivery which have delivered greater choice and efficiencies for our clients and created new learning opportunities for our people,” said Sue Gilchrist, Herbert Smith Freehills, regional managing partner, Asia and Australia.

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