Are the top law firms neglecting commercialism?

By Kevin Wheeler

This week, I came across an article in Accountancy Age which highlighted the results of a survey into the educational backgrounds of partners at the Big Four accountancy firms. Although the sample was relatively small – only 32 partners took part – the results dispel the myth that it is predominantly accountants from elite universities who make it into the higher echelons of the biggest firms due to their backgrounds. Instead, many of the partners interviewed had a provincial university degree, coming from aspirational working class or a lower middle class background – only three of the partners in the survey attended an elite university.

However, what really stood out for me from the research was the finding that to be a successful partner in one of these firms you have to be highly commercial. One of the researchers from Warwick Business School states, “Indeed, partners often do not do any accounting themselves at all as they are too busy working new commercial angles. “Technical partners”, who were accomplished accountants and were commonplace in the past, are now an anachronism. It is now crucial for partners to win work to continue a firm's growth – people skills are more important.”

So, it seems, in the world of Big Accounting the people who make it to the top and reap the rewards of partnership are not there because of their superior intellects honed at the top public schools and Oxbridge, but because they are more commercial and “business savvy” and have the people and selling skills necessary to build profitable long term relationships with their clients.

This got me thinking about the profile of partners at the top law firms, especially the magic circle firms. By contrast to the Big Four accountants, partners at magic circle law firms have a heavy educational bias towards the elite universities, especially Oxbridge. This is also reflected in these firms’ intakes with research that I uncovered from a couple of years ago showing that Oxbridge graduates then made up 38% of all magic circle trainees. A more recent survey of 380 law graduates in Managing Partner magazine found that the UK's magic circle law firms are losing out on talent from non-Oxbridge universities because they are perceived to favour candidates from Oxford and Cambridge.

No one would doubt the success that these top law firms have had over the years, but could it be that by focusing on intellectual rigour in their recruitment and promotion processes, these firms are failing to grasp the future importance of the commercial and “softer” people skills needed by their lawyers, especially their partners, in an ever competitive legal market?

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