My somewhat odd train of thought was pushed into motion because of a headline on the "FindLaw" blog (here). Apparently the number of partners in law firms in England and Wales has reduced for the first time since 2008. The post says:
The survey revealed that the number of partner roles available to lawyers in the UK fell in the year to 30 June 2012 to 33,662, a fall of 153.
The fall is more remarkable because the number had grown by 689 last year and by 1,466 in 2009/10.
It is thought the fall in jobs reflects a wider uncertainty with the current economic outlook but may also be due to uncertainty created in the legal sector by the advent of Alternative Business Structures introduced by the Legal Services Act, or 'Tesco Law'.
I'm not sure that this is the whole picture.
Most law firms are obsessed by one particular statistic - PEP. Profit per Equity Partner (PEP) is one of the few numbers that most law partners can remember and want to talk about. Firms publish their PEP figures in the industry press and there is much discussion about the subject.
If you have read this blog before, you will know that I think that PEP is one of the most foolish statistics every used. I won't go on about it again - but there is no definition of how profit is measured, and no agreed definition of a partner (A Equity, B Equity, Fixed Equity...).
Importantly, too, there are too ways to improve PEP. The first is to improve the firm's profitability. This is very hard for most partners to think about. Other than firing people, few lawyers have the time to consider cost saving exercises and tend to view marketing as taking people out for meals and drinks.
The second way to improve PEP is to reduce the number of Equity Partners That's much easier - partly since it can involve effectively firing people...
The maths are simple (and apologies if you have seen this before - but I think it bears repeating):
In year 1, the firm's profit is £10million and they have 50 Equity Partners - so PEP is £200,000.
In year 2, the firm's profits have fallen to £9million (oh no!) - but they have reduced Equity Partners by 6 (through retirements and 'nudging' aside a couple of partners that no-one liked too much) to 44 - and so PEP is now £204,545. Yippee!
My point is that there is a huge motivation to, at the very least, maintain partner numbers. In the example above, if profits remain the same, each additional partner reduces PEP by nearly £4,000.
It shouldn't be a surprise that partner numbers are falling - I'm surprised they haven't fallen further.