Embrace the power of diverse thinking and hiringOctober 2021
I was fortunate enough to start my career in the City at Clifford Chance. I was there during a period of extraordinary change amongst the top UK firms largely prompted, it must be said, by the innovation and boldness of purpose that CC brought to a very conservative and traditional London legal market.
Coward Chance and Clifford Turner still is arguably the most successful UK law firm merger, leading in turn to CC being the first UK firm to set up a real network of international offices staffed with English as well as local lawyers. CC was the first big firm to consciously create an identifiable brand, it invested in high quality business support functions, it seconded lawyers to clients and it invested in a diverse legal work force well before others did. The first significant US/UK merger followed not long after I left.
I say all this not out of nostalgia but because much of what CC did (and others who followed and brought their own innovations) remains as relevant today when we analyse why the US law firms have been so successful in London over the last 15 years.
Reduced to its simplest form US firms are winning the battle for talent and have embraced the power of diverse thinking and hiring. That allied to their financial muscle and a willingness to offer extended careers to senior lawyers is a powerful combination. But surely the top UK firms still have access to the best talent – certainly at the entry point into the profession? Yes, but it is what firms do with that talent that really matters and how they mould and incentivise their talent. Equally important is the need to embrace different types of talent. Clifford Chance famously employed the 80:20 rule to ensure a proportion of their workforce were not from ‘central casting’. They were the first major law firm to have as many female as male associates. The point is that too much of the same type of talent is as much a weakness as not attracting that talent in the first place. Sure, the US firms have the financial muscle to ‘buy’ talent and do not assume careers end in your mid-50s, but their attraction clearly extends beyond that.
From a recruitment perspective, one of the hardest things to understand is how rarely the top UK firms look to recruit laterally. Bringing along your own talent is laudable, but it is hardly the best way of improving the gene pool and opening the door to new ideas, let alone new clients and skills. The movement of talent has been largely one way for two decades.
An overly homogeneous work force and unwieldy internal bureaucracies and structures of course does not help either. US firms tend to be less ‘democratic’ but with that comes an ability to move quickly. Back in the day most big City law firms also tended to be run by a few influential partners who were able to carry their fellow partners. Returning to my alma mater, the Coward Chance/Clifford Turner merger was negotiated secretly by key decision makers (not even the management of the respective firms) and the partners were given two weeks to say yay or nay.
To give more modern examples, we could cite the ‘team’ of 13 finance partners Latham took from W&C in the late noughties which cemented their position as one of the top 2/3 US firms in the London market or the counter-intuitive decision Quinn Emanuel took around the same time to take on the most powerful client grouping in the London market, the banks.
The Magic Circle continue to enjoy an extremely powerful and enviable position in the City. They have all the weapons they need to compete with the best of the US. Perhaps by going back to the future they will rediscover some of the ingredients that got them there in the first place?
To discuss this topic further or chat about your future career plans please contact Maurice Allen (firstname.lastname@example.org)