Partnership prospects on the up as promotions at UK top 50 rise 38%

Foreign promotions continue to expand but female partners static

Partner promotions across the UK’s 50 largest law firms by revenue increased by more than a third this year, buoyed by growing market confidence and a cluster of 
transatlantic mergers.

Total partner promotions across the group stood at 495 globally in 2011, compared with 358 the previous year – an increase of just over 38%.

Promotions in the City accounted for 39% of new partners, with 191 lawyers made up across the London offices of UK firms and 387 (78%) across the EMEA region as a whole.

While the round demonstrates UK firms’ increasing commitment to their international networks generally (around 29% of total promotions were in Continental Europe or the Middle 
East), Asia emerged as particularly significant.

The region gained 52 new partners, equating to just over 10.5% of the total promotion round, with a further three in Australia. The tally is not far behind the US, where there were 56 promotions – significant, given that this year’s promotions table includes the US arms of newly-merged Squire Sanders Hammonds, Hogan Lovells and SNR Denton.

Firms showing particular commitment to Asia include Stephenson Harwood, where three of the four promotions were in Asia, Clifford Chance (CC), where just over half were in the region, as well as Herbert Smith, Linklaters, Barlow Lyde & Gilbert and Ince & Co.

CC managing partner David Childs (pictured) said: “The number of promotions in Asia reflects the opportunities we see for the firm in these fast-growing markets. [Combined with our Australia merger,] these promotions represent a significant investment in the resource we can deploy on the ground in this critical region.”

While analysis of the top 50 firms’ promotions highlights the group’s international ambitions, there has been little improvement in efforts to increase female representation within the partnership – despite many firms launching initiatives intended to boost numbers. In total there were 125 new female partners in 2011, equating to 25% of the total round – roughly the same proportion as last year.

Looking at the group as a whole, only 15 firms within the top 50 announced promotion rounds that were at least 30% female. These include Trowers & Hamlins and Bird & Bird, which announced all female rounds, as well as Norton Rose, Squire Sanders Hammonds, Olswang and Irwin Mitchell.

Norton Rose chief executive Peter Martyr commented: “The trend we see this year is that we have promoted more partners outside of London. We have also been able to make up 47% female partners and are quite pleased with that. We have been working hard on this for a couple of years and it has now started to show, which is encouraging.”

SNR Denton and Barlows both saw the largest percentage increases in promotions between 2009-10 and 2010-11, making up 24 and nine new partners respectively compared with two and one the previous year, although SNR Denton’s increase must be seen in context of the Denton Wilde Sapte and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal merger.

Six firms bucked the trend and promoted a smaller number of partners this year compared with last year – Herbert Smith, Bird & Bird, Wragge & Co, Taylor Wessing, Kennedys and LG. Wragges opted not to hold a promotion round at all this year. Four firms within the top 50 will announce their promotions later in the year.

Commenting on the general uptick in promotions, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer senior partner Will Lawes said: “It does not surprise me that numbers have picked up across the board this year as a lot of firms have started to play catch-up. As might be expected, for many UK based firms the largest proportion of promotions still falls in London, but I expect that this may change in 
the next few years as those firms with global ambitions continue to grow their 
international networks.”

In numbers

495 – total global promotions
38% – increase in partner promotions year-on-year
61% – Percentage of partner promotions outside London
6 – number of firms seeing a drop in partner promotions
15 – number of firms promoting at least 30% women
25% – female promotions as a percent of global promotions

Additional reporting by Sofia Lind.