Making the move to partnership

Enthusiastically embraced by the young Bar for some years, now those more established in their careers are responding to opportunities the employed Bar can offer. Where to start? Here’s a practical guide to help you navigate the process


The ability to transition between the self-employed and employed Bar has been enthusiastically embraced by the young Bar for some years. A portfolio career of varied positions in commercial law firms, government investigations, policy makers and in-house roles in industry is very attractive to a generation who enjoy flexibility and challenge. Now those more established in their careers are responding to the opportunities the Employed Bar can offer. Employers are open to recruiting from a wider pool of experienced, talented and flexible barristers.

I started my career at the self-employed criminal Bar before becoming a prosecutor for the Financial Services Authority, now the Financial Conduct Authority, and then moving to the white collar and regulatory investigations team in an international law firm.

In each case the move was motivated by changes in the international legal landscape as opportunities opened up for investigative lawyers that had not existed when I qualified.

The employed Bar does present the opportunity to do work of a quite different nature but still to be able to take advantage of all that being a barrister entails including the opportunity to be the advocate if you and the client wish and you are a cost effective and appropriately qualified option.

The employed Bar investigates, arbitrates, advises on policy and also performs senior leadership roles in partnerships, industry and government. There is practically no limit to the type of work you can do. There is often greater financial stability.

I am often asked by self-employed barristers how to make the move to partnership as the process can appear to be very daunting.

Where to go? Where will you flourish?

There is a significant cultural shift in joining a partnership. No individual partner is bigger than the firm. Collegiality is critical to a flourishing partnership. Successful firms reward a willingness to share contacts and clients and seek out those who will help others to win business and maintain their client relationships. Look at the remuneration structure of the firm: what does it reward and what does it value? This will tell you most about the culture and ethos of the partnership. A few firms still maintain an ‘eat what you kill’ model which will be familiar to self-employed barristers but most do not.

Firms have distinct cultures and values. Some are strongly entrepreneurial and others more conservative. Many specialise in non-contentious work and there will be limited opportunities for litigators in those firms because conflicts will be an irreconcilable issue. Others have particular sector or industry speciality and the client base will reflect this. Firms which specialise in litigation may be a more natural home for a self-employed barrister looking to move to employed practice. The recent success of litigation boutiques who aim to be conflict free has often been attributed partly to formerly self-employed barristers who have made the transition.

Consider how many partners have left the partnership and where they went. A low turnover may indicate either that the partners are very happy or that no-one else will take them.

Getting chosen: how do firms select partners?

The primary means of selection is by a rigorous interview process and an assessment of the business case for the prospective partner. In most cases, a self-employed barrister will not have a transferable client base and so the value of the prospective partner to the partnership will be on the strength of their reputation and the level of client demand for their services, contacts and experience. Arbitration specialists, financial crime prosecutors, banking litigators and contentious financial services barristers are particularly in demand.

The interview process is certainly not for the faint hearted and requires an enormous investment of time and resources on the part of both the partnership and the applicant. A partner hire is a very substantial investment for a firm and a poor decision can have serious ramifications for the reputation of the firm and impact on existing client relationships.

"There is practically no limit to the type of work you can do and often greater financial stability. I am often asked by self-employed barristers how to make the move as the process can appear daunting."

For my current position I had 29 interviews with partners in four countries, two dinners, three lunches and visited two overseas offices. Whilst it might seem tempting for practised advocates to treat the interviews as a performance, this is unlikely to lead either party to make the best decision.

I tried to view the process as an exploration of whether we had shared values and aspirations and sufficient desire to spend time in each other’s company to make a long lasting commitment. If the relationship is to be mutually beneficial this should be a very pleasant experience. It is also a very transparent process as it is quite impossible to get 43 partners in a law firm in disparate places to present a consistently artificial impression.

Creating the business case

It can be difficult for self-employed barristers to establish the business case for a partnership. It is important to be able to explain clearly what you can offer to the firm’s clients and how you will be able to win new business for the firm. Do you have a sector specialism? Do you have particular expertise or contacts that clients need? Do you have unique experience of particular types of cases or of dealings with government agencies? Is there an existing client demand for a skill you have such as arbitral advocacy? Do you have gravitas and credibility? Will a firm pitch to a client be significantly strengthened if you are on the pitch team?

Do not hope to rely on vague assertions of commonplace or general skills. Almost all barristers believe they have excellent client handling skills and are skilled problem solvers. However, partners in law firms will have much closer engagement with clients than you may have been used to and in very different circumstances. They will also be used to problem solving in real time, rather than many months or even years later, when foresight rather than hindsight is more useful. However, experience of the trial process and of the likely end result can be invaluable in a crisis and one of the great benefits to a firm of hiring a barrister from self-employment.

Consider non-partner roles and dual capacity practice

Many firms have created innovative new roles for senior lawyers who do not wish to become equity partners. These roles often carry the title counsel, consultant or legal director, or fixed equity partner. They are very flexible and may enable you to create a bespoke role which suits your skills and interests far better than an equity partnership or may be a stepping stone to an equity partnership. They do not carry the financial and leadership responsibilities of an equity partnership. You can now practise in a dual capacity combining self-employed and employed practice by obtaining an amended practising certificate. Practising in a dual capacity may enable you to try a different role and see where your interests and aptitudes lie.

Transition with benefits

The sheer size of many law firms can feel overwhelming by comparison with chambers. However, the loneliness and isolation which can be a characteristic of self-employment is certainly not an issue when you have over 2,000 colleagues. The technological, secretarial, paralegal and associate resources large firms can deploy are extremely welcome and make working life very easy. It takes time to integrate and to develop good working relationships but with goodwill on both sides it can be very rewarding.

Sara George joins Sidley Austin LLP in May 2019

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Sara George

Sara George joins Sidley Austin LLP in May 2019. She has a wealth of experience in UK and international regulatory and criminal investigations. Sara was previously a criminal barrister and a prosecutor for the Financial Services Authority.