So you’re an equity partner – big deal!

22 06 2011

Last week I was given a business card by a lawyer I was talking to. On the card, underneath their name, was written “Equity Partner” in a fairly bold, not-to-be-missed font.

Tony showed the proof of his "Legal Jedi Master" card to the managing partner more in hope than expectation

It struck me, that were I ever to hit those heights in a law firm (I bailed out of private practice before putting those magic words in my email signature) I’d probably be pretty pleased with myself. And rightly so. It’s a position many people strive for and certainly for those in the upper tiers of the legal world, can be very lucrative and rewarding.

The title marks you out as an owner of the business and as a result conveys a certain status within the firm which undoubtedly provides very practical assistance in getting things done quickly through the firm’s support infrastructure.

But, the question that troubled me was the message that the title communicates to someone outside the firm.
I posed the question on Twitter, and got some fascinating comments back.

adds pomposity and confuses clients

I think it’s wrong. Many clients don’t know what it means, in the real world.”

It’s a badge of seniority but non-lawyer clients might not know what it means. Also = unlikely to do much of your actual work.”

” It would make me think, “Ah, so you’re the reason for my large bill”

The theme that stood out strongly for me was the internally-focused nature of the title.

Of course for fellow lawyers in private practice, and for in-house lawyers, the title and connotations will be understood. However, aside from the fact that there a huge number of purchasers and influencers who may not know what it really means, I wonder if there is an opportunity lost in not using a job title that is more aligned with the lawyer’s actual role.

There are a number of ways that could be approached. For a start, as I’ve discussed before, a market strategy that is structured around a client’s vertical industry sector is quite common. Would reference to specialism in a vertical sector as well as a practice area (or even instead of…) make sense? What about an alternative based on a description of the relationship with the client, so for example separating out relationship managers (I know the “s” word is maybe a step too far), technical specialists, project leads etc. For large scale project work this delineation of responsibility could also add credibility to the project management ethos espoused by many of the top firms.

Another driver that could force to revisit job titles is the changing career structures that have been emerging over the past five years or so. Many firms now have a senior designation for those lawyers who want to stay with the firm long term, but do not want the additional commitments (time, financial or management) that go with partnership. As the next generation of lawyers move through the ranks with their different cultural approach to work, life and career, will the old hierarchical, largely tenure-based titles still prove effective?

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for fresh thinking in this area (at least here in the UK) comes from the influx of new competitors into the market when the winds of deregulation blow through the profession over the coming months. Much has been written about the potential impact on law firms serving consumers, but make no mistake change is afoot in the world of commercial law too.

Aside from further consolidation, which I believe will be driven globally as well as in response to our own market conditions, the emergence of the LPO model and flexible resourcing models such as those from Axiom or BLP‘s lawyers on demand, will challenge incumbent firms to revisit their business models. This will invariably have implications for resources and career paths, and presents the perfect opportunity to revisit job titles.

While it may seem trivial, job titles do usually matter both to the holder, and in some contexts, to clients and prospects. A new entry to the law firm market will have the chance to think about this afresh, not restricted by history or tradition.
My sense is that these organisations will not default to titles like “Assistant”, “Associate” or “Equity Partner” and in using something a bit bolder and more relevant, will be able to send a signal to the market, both to potential clients and potential employees!








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