Global partnerships, eh?

“Nothing ticks off partners more than calling them glorified employees. And yet they keep on making choices that turn them into such.” It was a side comment in a convoluted conversations. But it stuck with me. Especially as word on the street was everyone in the profession was talking to (or pretending they were talking to) UK and/or US firms interested in besieging the Canadian market. The result, the February 2012 Last Word, The Partnership Machine.

Unedited excerpt (full text follows):

There are no global firms with 1000 partners.

Wait—don’t click on Google to prove me wrong. I know what I said, and I know what stat you’re reaching for to counter me. Chuck the stat: I’m right, and you’re wrong. There are no global firms with 1000 partners. There are no organizations with 1000 partners. What we mean, what we imply, what we infer, what we feel when we use the words partner and partnership—this thing, it don’t happen at the 1000-participant mark.

 It barely happens at the 100 mark.

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LAST WORD: Global partnerships, eh?

by Marzena Czarnecka

Partnerships are tough. I don’t need to tell you about it, right? Just think of your basic two-person partnership—your last, current or potential marriage—and all the negotiation and compromise involved in achieving consensus in that merger of two equals (it is that, right? Right?). Extrapolate that to the level of Canada’s largest law firms—with each partner in possession of such a prenup that he’s really a free agent, able and inclined to walk pretty much anytime she feels unappreciated—and well, there, in a nutshell, you’ve got my concerns about the legal profession’s “going global” experiment.

Now, the experiment has, of course, already happened. The European firms have done it aeons ago, the Americans are following, and it looks inevitable that the twain shall meet (ok, in a sense have already met… but in another sense, not really) and some part of Canada’s legal landscape will be absorbed into the world legal mosaic: indeed, has been absorbed. You’ve heard all the reasons for this step before; you’re probably discussing them within your firm every third day as is (and if not, you should) and without your firm—that is, with your colleagues at other firms, your competitors and your confidential headhunters (I know you’ve got one, don’t be coy)—on the hour every hour.

Here’s what I want you to add to your discussion agenda the next time you canvas the topic. There are no global firms with 1000 partners.

Wait—don’t click on Google to prove me wrong. I know what I said, and I know what stat you’re reaching for to counter me. Chuck the stat: I’m right, and you’re wrong. There are no global firms with 1000 partners. There are no organizations with 1000 partners. What we mean, what we imply, what we infer, what we feel when we use the words partner and partnership—this thing, it don’t happen at the 1000-participant mark.

It barely happens at the 100 mark.

You know I’m right. The way law firms use the term partnership has a very specific and emotive meaning, even though the majority of lawyers at the country’s largest law firms no longer have any personal experience of that kind of partnership. Whether they were formed at the turn of the last century or in its second half, by the late 1980s, the bigger end of Canada’s law firms was already stretching the meaning of partnership. Real partners founded those firms, sure, but by the time the, if not second, then definitely third generation took over (generation in leadership, not reproductive, terms), the meaning of partnership was heavily diluted. I still remember the wistfulness in a certain managing partner’s voice when he told me of the “partners’ meetings in phone booths” that were possible back in the day. ‘Twasn’t his day, or even his predecessor day—it was the halcyon day of the founders, when partnership meant something—everything—consensus, if not easy (because it never is), really was possible, and you didn’t leave your partner for the promise of slightly greener grass with three year guarantees on the other side because your take of the firm’s profits in a lean year didn’t precisely match your legal ego.

Can you have 100 partners? In 1999/2000, Canadian law firms maintained you could. The largest at that time was hitting 200, and there was a whole crowd of them crossing that 100 mark. Partners, not lawyers, even though number of lawyers was the number they boasted about in their brochures (they were just getting their act together on that newfangled website thing—what a pain, you had to keep updating the thing every time someone left or arrived—a brochure was so much easier, you printed 500 copies and just used them until they were used up, or so out of date they had to be recycled wholesale, why mess with that?). There were growing pains, of course, experimentation with corporate titles (that still, of course, persists today) and giving executive committees and managing partners more power—but the official line from the top as well as the rank and file was, generally, that partnership meant something.

It had to means something. Because law firms, generally, are pretty dysfunctional environments. Their saving grace, in 1966 as much as in 2006, has been the claim that they’re pretty special places for partners. That firm partners take care of each other. Watch each other’s back. Go the distance for each other in a time of need.

The evolution of the Canadian legal marketplace over the last decade—over the last five years—has been pretty dramatic. And its most dramatic change? I don’t think the largest law firms are partnerships anymore. Increasingly, the rank and file don’t pretend they are… and the official line from the top is getting weaker. And if they’re going to join the great global march forward, they should stop pretending that being “an equity partner at [insert name of Mega-Firm here]” is something special. One is, at best, a shareholder… at worst, an employee.

There are no law firms with 1000 partners. End of story.

Marzena Czarnecka is fond of two-person partnerships, three-person committees, and one-person dictatorships.

For the record: I wrote this after the Norton Rose/Ogilvy Renault/Macleod Dixon match up, but before Fullbright Jaworski joined the team and before Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP announced its global partnership. And before Fasken Martineau’s African adventure.

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