Career development and progression: sometimes good ole fashioned brown-nosing will do it.
The RollOnFriday Best Law Firms to Work At 2023 reveals the firms that offer golden career development opportunities, as well as those with the greasiest corporate poles to climb.
Which employers nurture their staff to blossom, grow and shine? And which ones leave them in the dark like a discarded potato left in a cupboard? Here are the results:
1st Sidley Austin
The US firm which scored the highest for salary satisfaction in the survey, also comes top for career progression.
"It’s the mentorship that’s second to none," said a senior lawyer. Others praised the "new development programs in top US schools" where UK lawyers are flown out "to learn and get new skills at places within the Ivy League". A mid-level associate said: "It seemed really cringey when it was first announced but it’s actually really cool - we get to do MBA courses in the US."
The "only downside is that no-one leaves as it's such a nice firm to work for which ultimately impacts on progression but the firm does what it can to support development," said a Business Services member of staff.
2nd Burges Salmon
The Best Law Firm to Work at 2023 offers "a lot of support to assist individuals to navigate their career and progress up the management structure," said a junior lawyer. "The route to the more senior positions of director and partner is transparent and there is a general feel that supervisors want you to succeed."
The Bristol-headquartered firm has a "good track record of organic growth by promoting from within" said a partner.
"There is a good deal of encouragement and mentoring," said a senior lawyer. The firm is "really helpful in "setting a plan and pushing you to go for certain jobs they think you will be good at within the firm," said a Business Services member of staff.
Joint 3rd Clarke Willmott and Trowers & Hamlins
"I joined the firm as a trainee and have been allowed to develop in the direction that I wanted," said a partner. "The firm has been and remains flexible to the needs and aspirations of its employees. It rewards initiative and innovation, so if you have any idea, no matter how junior you may be, you're given the space to run with it."
Staff also praised the firm for offering a "number of courses" which helped with "career development and progression."
At Trowers, there are "clear and measurable routes to partnership," said a lawyer in the Exeter office, who believed "there does not appear to be favouritism or any significant bias towards the partners pals".
"I have regular check-ins and feedback in relation to the firm's career framework with clear targets," said a junior lawyer.
"They keep promoting me, so I can't complain!" beamed one pleased partner.
Joint 5th Mills & Reeve, Osborne Clarke and Ropes & Gray
"Brilliant training offered," said a M&R Business Services member of staff, "and encouragement to take on new tasks/projects".
"Annual reviews are taken seriously, very thorough, lots of training and materials on how to progress," commented a M&R senior lawyer.
At OC, "I feel really well supported," said a junior partner, "I'm allowed to grow a practice that is meaningful to me and contributes to the firm as a whole in an environment that is collaborative."
"A very fair employer," said an OC Business Services member of staff, "and supportive of an individual's career goals".
"Regular open conversations about my career development," said a senior lawyer. "I know where I am headed and I am constantly asked what support I need to reach the next level. The partners genuinely care about me as a person and my development."
At Ropes & Gray, "I have a mentor who I meet with once a month who is actively teaching me how to progress to Counsel, Partner etc." said a senior lawyer.
"Personally I left the Magic Circle to a growing thriving business hungry to take market share, and keen to promote partners," said a partner at the US firm.
8th Bird Bird
2Birds "appears a genuine meritocracy," said a junior lawyer. "Lots of entrepreneurial associates, who get to partner pretty quickly compared to the competition," said a partner.
"Very keen for you to carve your own path," said a colleague.
9th Addleshaw Goddard
Another top ten spot for AG, which "has a strong focus on associate development" including enrolling 2-3PQE solicitors "on a programme to ensure they are aware of the skills required" to progress, said a lawyer.
"Lots of promoting junior talent," said a trainee who secured their training contract "whilst a paralegal at the firm - have always felt very supported."
Joint 10th Latham & Watkins, Plexus Law, RPC and Shearman & Sterling
"I've made it from a very junior associate to partner, not sure what else there is to say," said a Latham partner. "Very specialised but you learn a lot," said a junior.
At Plexus there are "clear paths and sensible objectives for success." One solicitor felt that: "Career development is the only positive thing about Plexus." Another solicitor said that development was "much better since the old management left. Too many favourites, many of whom have left this year."
At RPC, a Business Services member of staff reported: "I have only been here a year and have had a lot of conversations and prep for a promotion." A senior lawyer said that partnership "is probably achievable for those that want it now that RPC has salaried partners. There are lots of younger female partners as well so that glass ceiling feels shattered. But if you don't want it, it's not an issue."
A Shearman & Sterling trainee said they "get a trainee buddy, an associate buddy and a thorough training programme put together by our professional development team. I also appreciate how HR check in on us and have put together well-being programmes with a specialist psychologist as part of the 'Thrive at Shearman' package."
"I am supported where required and have an open door through which to discuss any concerns I may have," said a senior Shearman lawyer.
Joint 14th Hogan Lovells and Travers Smith
A HogLove senior lawyer said they were "happy" to be "taking on more responsibility and moving up the rungs of the firm's hierarchy", adding "at least in my team/department and at my level, things don't seem too political; if you're effective at your job then you will progress." A colleague said: "Career development is positive, with clear communication of the expectations for each level".
At Travers Smith, a junior said: "I am being given a lot of responsibility across matters for my PQE, which is challenging but great for my L&D."
Joint 16th DAC Beachcroft, Kirkland & Ellis, Macfarlanes and Weil
A partner at DAC Beachcroft said the firm is "a genuine meritocracy and rewards talented people with excellent career development opportunities." A senior lawyer said the firm is "good at bringing talent through and will support anybody who wants to progress, but only if your face fits, and you won't ask for a salary raise".
Meanwhile at Kirkland & Ellis, there's a "6 year partnership fast track". A colleague elaborated that if you give the firm "your twenties and early thirties hand over fist then, provided you are not a certified imbecile, you will be rewarded with (non equity) partner at 7PQE." A partner said: "People can sneer at our approach but the results are clear."
At Macfarlanes there are "good opportunities at the firm to develop a career and develop expertise in subject area," said a lawyer. A Business Services member of staff said: "internal courses are provided to help us develop our skill-sets dependant on our role. There are plenty of learning opportunities and if another role presents itself within the firm, we are encouraged to move internally rather than leave."
Weil provides "fantastic training, development and learning opportunities," said a junior lawyer. "Partners and Counsel take the time to go through certain points with you and they are always available for a chat." The firm "also offers in house coaching to all staff" and "all employees have access to a number of different online training resources," said a Business Services member of staff.
20th TLT and White & Case
A TLT lawyer said: "I feel as though I'm on a good track, supported by my line manager, with a pathway to where I want to go. It would be great if the course was faster, no doubt, but I don't think it's a slow one by any means."
However, there were quibbles in some areas: "Career development in business services has been slow," said one member of staff, who felt: "Fee earners have been the priority, but the promise of a clear progression route for business services seems to have died a death."
At White & Case one senior lawyer said: "Career development processes, including partnership track, are highly transparent and candidates are openly supported." although another believed that "the culture is very up and out".
Joint 22nd CMS and Shoosmiths
At CMS, one senior lawyer highlighted an issue in their team "is that nobody really wants to leave, so making partner can take time." Although they pointed out that "lawyers being contented isn't really a cause for complaint."
Another CMS lawyer praised the "comprehensive" L&D programme. However, a CMS partner felt that there is "no incentive for cross-selling or collaboration", resulting in "partners generally operating in silos".
A Shoosmiths junior lawyer said: "for those who want to progress (and quickly) the opportunities are there", and the "firm recognises those who work hard in promotions and pay review."
But a colleague said that "Career development is very much self propelled though not consistent - some departments place time barriers to promotion whilst others promote those who are not ready because they don't want to lose them to competitors."
24th Debevoise & Plimpton
A Debevoise & Plimpton lawyer believed that there is "not a great deal of control over work flow or type, given the size of the team" but overall they had a "great exposure to complex, high-value deals." While a senior lawyer said: "I definitely feel like I am developing, progressing and receiving support, but long-term career progression remains opaque."
Joint 25th Ashurst and Weightmans
A senior lawyer at Ashurst said: "I feel like there is room to become a partner if you want it and are encouraged to do so." Another lawyer said: "It's never totally transparent as to how you progress, but I feel as though the firm cares and invests in progression which is the main thing."
Weightmans has a "meritocratic" approach to career development, said one lawyer. "It’s not about your face fitting as to whether you get a promotion - it’s all based on figures/ stats and whether you’re helping to grow the business." But: "They need to focus on better supervision".
Joint 27th Charles Russell Speechlys, Mishcon de Reya and Watson Farley & Williams
At Charles Russell Speechlys "the process is a bit opaque," said one lawyer, "but the firm is planning to revamp it a bit as part of its current strategy plans."
"Promotion criteria still isn’t applied fairly or consistently between teams which is abysmal for a firm of its size," said a senior CRS lawyer. "Some teams (property) hold associates back until they are closer to 10 years PQE before progressing to Senior Associate" while "the corporate team promote significantly earlier (4/5 years)."
At Mishcon de Reya, a junior lawyer said: "The firm is completely invested in development, focused on ensuring good and regular feedback and getting everyone to where they want/need to be."
However, a Mishcon senior lawyer felt that development is "at the whim of the heads of department" as "many with better numbers are ignored for promotion against others who are friendlier with the big cheeses." A colleague said they were "disappointed" the firm "got rid of the legal director role" adding: "I don't want to be a partner, but I joined the firm on the basis that I wouldn't have to choose between staying as an MA, or having to leave at some point once I was just too senior."
A Watson Farley & Williams partner said: "Career development is there for those that chase after it. Generally those that complain are not rising up the ranks for a reason - they sit back and expect it to come to them by right. Those that get promoted are the ones that approach partners and management, are interested in the firm and are entrepreneurial rather than reactive."
However, a WFW senior lawyer believed: "I have no chance of progression as the main partner I work with is the 'gatekeeper' type that is positively encouraged into that sort of behaviour here." A Business Services member of staff said: "it’s definitely lacking. I feel they don’t want you to progress in your career because then they have to increase your salary which is an absolute no go."
Joint 30th DWF, Horwich Farrelly and Allen & Overy
"DWF gives you the chance to and space to develop if you are willing to work hard," said a partner. A senior lawyer at the firm said that "Career development is pretty fair but the promotion process is so bureaucratic that people find it easier to move up the ranks elsewhere."
At Horwich Farrelly a senior lawyer said that progression is "office / manager specific." And the firm has "introduced at least two new layers of seniority, thereby stifling those with ambitions of partnership. The introduction was a result of a few senior associates that threatened to leave but were placated with the new post of associate partner, whatever that is."
"Can’t knock it" commented an Allen & Overy junior lawyer about career development. Although a Business Services member of staff said: "Progress up the ladder is achievable if you have sharp elbows, total disregard for your colleagues and threaten to leave."
Joint 33rd Irwin Mitchell, Pinsent Masons and Norton Rose Fulbright
"A lot of hoop jumping to get promotion," said a senior lawyer at Irwin Mitchell. "I feel colleagues can be deliberately held back for no particularly good reason, other than their boss had to go through the hoops and wait in line, so they should too." Another lawyer commented that there has "always been a pretty fair appraisal system - there are sometimes favourites who seem to get everything - but then they do tend to put the hours in and do more business development etc. so its fair enough."
A Pinsent Masons junior lawyer said there are "great opportunities to get sector/client exposure and a massive range of work opportunities, as well as an international secondment programme." However there were some grumbles that "all options other than partnership are undervalued, and partnership is guarded like the holy grail," argued a senior lawyer. "There is no recognition of non-traditional routes to partnership."
At Norton Rose Fulbright "aside from adding more responsibilities, with no extra pay or support, nothing is done to really develop people's careers, contributing to high turnover," said a Business Services member of staff. A senior NRF lawyer said that although "making partner takes longer than in years gone by, the firm tries hard to support its own, and offer development opportunities through secondments etc along the way."
At Linklaters "the flurry of senior exits has resulted in some better work trickling down the levels," said one lawyer. "Not everyone has been happy, but this has positively impacted my development."
However, "partnership is opaque as it ever was," said one senior lawyer at the Magic Circle firm as "partners still cling to prestige and badmouth anyone who takes partnership at a US shop."
Joint 37th DLA Piper, Freshfields and Womble Bond Dickinson
"Hard to carve out a niche for yourself at a junior level," said a lawyer at DLA Piper, "where you’re very much at the whim of your partners."
A DLA Business Services member of staff said: "It is easy to progress as they can't recruit externally."
"Freshfields does not really care about PQE," revealed a junior lawyer, "the London office instead focuses on 'milestones'. This means associates that are doing well are rewarded with better pay / bonuses and more interesting work the faster they develop." However, a colleague said: "in principle it allows associates to progress at different rates - but in practice it is only used to hold people back." A Business Services member of staff said: "Development is reduced as the firm does not want to pay a higher salary."
At Womble Bond Dickinson a partner said: "Every man and his dog can progress to salaried partner these days. Beyond that though, it’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle as to how one gains even junior equity."
A junior Womble lawyer said: "It’s well known that people that threaten to leave get promoted, which leaves a bitter taste for their colleagues who don’t throw their toys out the pram."
40th Clifford Chance
"The firm traditionally lacks transparency about career prospects, you get a carrot each year and then in one appraisal they suddenly remember you’re not promotion material and eventually manage you out," said a junior lawyer at Clifford Chance. "The transactional seats have a couple of 11-14 PQE associates that are still hoping… lmao".
Although a senior lawyer saw the bright side: "Clifford Chance will open doors elsewhere even if I’m a rubbish lawyer".
"Dissatisfied, because I see the workload adding up but don't see any salary or role promotion changing," said a Business Services member of staff at HFW.
A junior lawyer reported that "HFW is a great firm to train at as you are often the only associate / trainee on the matter with the partner. So you get really good experience and levels of responsibility from an early stage." Although a trainee felt: "I don’t feel they are investing in junior or mid level people enough for us to want to stay and develop at the firm."
42nd Clyde & Co
"Can't say I've had a career development conversation since pre-Covid," said a senior Clyde & Co lawyer. "And bearing in mind I've instigated some of these conversations, that's saying something."
Another Clydes lawyer believed: "I have a reasonable chance of making partner but that is a fairly unappetising prospect so I will almost certainly leave."
43rd Eversheds Sutherland
"Haemorrhaging Associates" said an Eversheds Sutherland lawyer who commented that the firm's "plan" is to "delay all promotions to Senior associate, then sit back and wonder why attrition rates are so high."
A senior Eversheds lawyer said: "there is little by way of active encouragement, it’s very much left to individuals to push for it".
Joint 44th Herbert Smith Freehills and Slaughter and May
Career development at HSF is "opaque," said a a senior lawyer. While another commented about progression: "Don’t have children."
A Slaughter and May junior lawyer said: "Chances of partnership - particularly in certain departments - are slim to zero, but frankly Slaughters increasingly resembles a training camp for the partnership of other top law firms and in-house departments, so I don't mind."
"You can get a change in title," said a Slaughters Business Services member of staff, "but it looks like the pay will not be reflective of what you should get in the market."
46th Gowling WLG
"No real room for growth" and "training provided on ad hoc and required basis," said a Business Services member of staff at Gowling WLG.
"Career development at Capsticks is like the hunger games - anyone who supports the Capitol is given an unfair advantage whilst the districts are left squabbling for scraps," said a junior lawyer.
"Discussions about career development are always hush hush and management never open the conversation," said a senior lawyer. "Fee-earners are always left wondering whether to broach it or not."
Another lawyer said: "Everything is cloak and dagger with the onus on fee earners to push for promotion. Most partners won’t encourage you to put yourself forward and candidates are often left wondering whether they are any good."
"Career progression is very much dependant on how much you suck up to your manager and how much additional, unpaid time you are willing to give the firm," said a Dentons Business Services member of staff.
A senior Dentons lawyer said the firm has an "inflexible approach to promotion" with "too much focus on billable hours vs quality of work."
"Doesn’t feel like there is a plan for associates. Too many partners are selfish and don’t think about junior lawyers," said a Kennedys associate. Another added: "partners are just not interested in supporting career development. Senior associates just leave."
50th Baker McKenzie
"At 12 years PQE my career doesn't seem to be going anywhere," said a senior lawyer at Baker McKenzie.
A Business Services member of staff said that career development is "unclear and mostly depends on someone's discretion". A colleague said: "To be fair, the messaging is supported by reality, but you need to be proactive and not wait for development to strike like lightning."
51st Ince Gordon Dadds
"The firm’s too busy trying to fight fires at the moment to care," said a junior lawyer at Ince.
"Never have I worked anywhere where the idea of equity partnership so terrifies the salaried partners that they'd rather leave or take a demotion than accept," said an Ince partner.
52nd Slater and Gordon
"Absolutely no career development if you’re in business services," said a Slater and Gordon staffer. "You just get fobbed off all the time. They’ve recently started treating the lawyers better as they need them to stay" in order "to sell".
"One rule for one person, one rule for another. Just depends if you’re the solicitor’s favourite," said a Slater and Gordon paralegal.
"A one way path into a brick wall," said a senior lawyer at Knights. While a colleague commented: "I’m not putting vomiting inducing LinkedIn posts so I’m screwed."
54th Squire Patton Boggs
"Zero career development unless you're ready to brown nose like mad," said a junior lawyer at Squire Patton Boggs.
"I haven’t heard of this," said a senior lawyer, "only excuses as to why I’ve made my hours but I’m not getting a proper bonus i.e I need to hit certain KPIs better, which is a total fudge to get out of paying me."
"It’s been going nowhere fast for a while," said another. "I think associates that have stayed for a while often get thought of as a bit useless because we haven’t already left."
55th Goodwin Procter
"Hiring clowns into senior positions who cling onto huge pay and being jack sh*te isn’t great for one’s career development," said a lawyer at Goodwin Procter.
"Nowhere to progress to," said onw lawyer, "saturated lower partnership level and saturated with useless fat. While another commented: "Would like to further progress and make partner, but don’t see that happening with the current set up".
Joint 56th BCLP and Keoghs
BCLP and Keoghs shared the bottom position.
"No scope for career progression as old partners won’t leave," said a senior BCLP lawyer. While a junior lawyer said there is a "very lukewarm commitment to this."
A Business Services member of staff said there is "no time to complete courses due to high volumes of work and tight deadlines for project work."
At Keoghs a senior lawyer said: "No clear structure, no discussion as to how to progress." While a colleague commented: "Staff are left to fester, there are very few opportunities to progress and junior but talented staff are not let anywhere near the clients. Unless you’re going to take a client with you if you leave, you’re just another worker ant grinding the hours out."
A paralegal at Keoghs said development is "like the X factor without the glamour. If your face fits you are ok. If not, no chance."