Opinion | 23-10-13

Who would be a Senior Associate?

Benji Field discusses the trials and tribulations of being a senior associate and the tough road to partnership and makes some suggestions for associates to help them on their career path. 

With the odds of being promoted to partner remaining tough, many associates find the path to partnership more unclear than ever.

Gone are the days when a lawyer could make partnership simply by surviving eight or so years of PQE. These days there are far more factors at play rendering promotion to partnership a challenge for firms and associates alike.

The frustrations are all too evident. Senior associates are cutting their teeth transacting work brought in by partners, but in tandem are being expected to build credible business cases. The exponential growth of the City’s law firms since the 1990s together with the influx of US firms has seen a continuous stream of young lawyers qualifying and climbing up the ranks.

But the numbers coming up through those ranks are not matched by those leaving private practice. Combine this with non-retirement of partners seeking to prolong their careers into their 60s and beyond and a “bottle-neck” effect has occurred that most law firms are struggling to deal with.  The statistics are not good, whichever way they are cut. Within the Magic Circle London partner promotions for 2013 remained static and globally they were down from 95 in 2012 to 79 this year. 

Firm 2013 London Promotions (2012 in brackets)2013 Global Promotions (2012 in brackets)

Allen & Overy

6 (6)

19 (23)

Clifford Chance

5 (4)

20 (27)


6 (8)

14 (20)


6 (6)

24 (23)

Slaughter & May

2 (1)

2 (2)


25 (25)

79 (95)









In an attempt to placate associates and offer some kind of reward for the ever increasing number of billable hours, many UK firms are moving more away from the lockstep of PQE and towards a more meritocratic system. In addition, the American model of using alternative partnership tracks such as counsel or legal director positions is being deployed to defer (and in many cases indefinitely park) associates.


Firms would do well to be realistic as to what this intermediate step means in each case and associates in this situation to be sure to have an open and frank discussion as to where their track is going. The facts are that firms cannot promote as many associates as are coming through the ranks and many are going to be disappointed, even whilst the economy starts showing signs of recovery. Making an associate up to a partner is a financial commitment for a firm and it is therefore inevitable that this will be reserved for the lucky few.  

How then can senior associates make the most of this situation and make the right choices to ensure a route to partnership? 

For Magic Circle associates a common answer used to lie in the Silver Circle. As the joke goes: “What’s the quickest way to make partner at Ashurst? Answer: “Being a senior associate at Linklaters”. This seems to be less of an immediate route nowadays and many senior associates are settling for a shorter, more visible (although not guaranteed) track to partnership when making a move like this. However, if an associate is willing to consider moving to firms further down the pecking order there is much more opportunity. 

These moves highlight the classic badge vs brand strategy and indeed many associates are taking this route. They are becoming more strategic about their careers and going to a smaller firm where they can implement a business plan which ultimately is seen as a “stepping stone” before moving back to a larger firm. Over the last few years there have been immediate partner roles coming to market at some high quality firms including DLA Piper, SJ Berwin, Mayer Brown, Pinsent Masons to name but a few.

Other suggestions for associates looking to progress their career lie around how proactive they want to be.

Distinguish yourself from the competition: Actively pursuing BD and training opportunities from the outset will serve a young lawyer well. Law firms are all too aware of the fact that their lawyers need to be able to business develop themselves in order to drive new business and they now are beginning to realise that these talents can be nurtured and are worth investing in, even for those to whom BD does not necessarily come naturally.

Specialisation: Having a sub-section of a practice area where a lawyer can hold themselves out as a specialist is not something that happens overnight and takes a degree of planning and foresight. However, if an associate can secure themselves a niche they will be more attractive to firms looking to grow their offering and the partner track could well be easier.

Career management: Associates need to be more pro-active when it comes to their own career paths and not leave conversations around prospects to the annual appraisal. Senior associates need to be aware that the usual “nudges and winks” will not cut it and that there is nothing wrong with asking direct questions about their careers.