Will the partnership model survive Gen Y?

A former top tier managing partner claims the new generation of lawyers are turning their backs on becoming partners. Now a group of Kiwi legal professionals have their say

Will the partnership model survive Gen Y?
Bill Fazio, the principal of Fazio Advisory in Australia and the former managing partner of both Herbert Geer and Minter Ellison doesn’t think the current generation of young lawyers want the traditional partnership structure.

He spoke to NZ Lawyer’s sister publication Australian Lawyer ahead of the second Managing Partners Forum for Boutique and Small Firms, which has been organised by Chilli IQ. Fazio will be one of the key speakers at the forum, being held from the 21-22 August in Adelaide.

“I think that Gen Y won’t accept that there is one answer and they will have to fit in with it. They are a little more assertive in terms of what they’re looking for, and I think they’ve thought harder about things like work-life balance,” he says.

Fazio says that to ask a young lawyer nowadays to make sacrifices early in their career so that they may reap the rewards of being made a partner later didn’t resonate well – especially considering Gen Y generally won’t stay with the same employer for a decade.

Tim Orsman, the marketing and business development director at Simpson Grierson, agrees with the thrust of Fazio’s comments.

“The one-size fits all model of partnership is not seen as a viable ambition for many young lawyers,” he told NZ Lawyer.

However Orsman points out that it’s not solely a Generation Y work/life balance issue, but is also a consequence of the trend towards partnership opportunities reducing in numbers and taking longer to realise.

“We have plenty of young lawyers who do want to work towards partnership.  And we also have others who want to be involved in managing or building a business at a relatively early stage in their career, and who tend to go to in-house or other roles.”

Looking forward, Orsman says issues such as the one Fazio talks about also offer opportunities for law firms to develop new services with different business models and structures. This should create good alternative career paths for lawyers who may not be interested in the traditional partnership model, he says.

On this subject, Fazio thinks there could be merit in law firms looking at the business models of start-ups where ownership, and hence rewards, are more equitably shared with employees rather than concentrated among a few.

“I think firms are going to have to say, ‘well for these partners who want to put money in, we’ll give them a good return for their money’. Let’s not say just because you want to be a senior lawyer that you have to have everything and borrow money to come in.”

He want to see firms unbundling aspects of the partnership model and using innovative thinking that allow for different forms of equity buy-in.

“This may involve getting other sources of equity from investors, for example…Maybe someone like me will say, ‘I’m willing to risk it at my stage of life’, and not tie equity to 80 hours a week at work.”

Mark Weenink, the managing partner of Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, told NZ Lawyer he sees definite changes ahead to traditional partnership structures.

The idea of young lawyers being less willing to fit into previous seniority structures is not novel he says, remembering also feeling very daunted by the model as a new lawyer, but he agrees the voices of dissent have been gaining momentum.

“There is probably less desire to be part of that model. It’s changing and I think it will continue to evolve so it meets the needs of generations coming through…The careers have become a lot more fluid. We encourage our lawyers to take career breaks. We actively encourage them to go in-house for a while. We think it means a much better ability to step into the client’ shoes.”

Weenink says another major shift has come from the disappearance of the ‘firm for life’ concept: As an example, more than half of Minter Ellison Rudd Watts partners have come from somewhere else, he says.

“There is no doubt that Gen Ys do some things better than previous generations, [one of] which is being more assertive about their careers.”

This includes demanding more feedback and wanting to see how what they’re doing now will be useful down the track.

The natural evolution will be towards larger partnerships with greater flexibility, Weenink says. As a spin off, this will see much younger partners start to come through.

He also expects a move away from equity partnerships - following suit of the US and Australia - and salary partnerships becoming much more commonplace instead.

Geoff Busch, partner at Anderson Lloyd’s Auckland office says he’s also noticed a greater proportion of lawyers taking an alternative path at an earlier stage in their careers.

“I think the demands on staff of traditionally modelled law firms are higher than they ever have been, particularly given advances in technology which mean lawyers are increasingly connected and opportunities for 'down time' are squeezed.  Young lawyers today have a wider and more diverse range of career opportunities than they did 10 or 20 years ago, as well as a greater focus on health and balance in their lives,” he tells NZ Lawyer.

Anderson Lloyd has reacted by putting in place a number of initiatives that allow and encourage some form of flexible work practice.

This includes working from home, compressed working week, flexible start/finish and flexible leave.

Busch believes the real issue is the required investment in time and energy to achieve and maintain a traditional equity partnership practice. There will need to be more diversity of options available to Generation Y in this regard to attract them to and retain them in partnership roles, he says.

“Firms know the days are over where they can get away with treating staff just as economic units. Young lawyers need to be respected and valued intrinsically if they're to remain engaged and energised. They need to know that the partners they work for are helping them shape their careers in an authentic and focused way, and in many cases this doesn't include an end goal of partnership. Firms also need to be flexible around accommodating their other needs, for example in relation to study, travel and parenting.” 

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