By Peter Frankl.

When the mid-year AFR Partnership survey was published, it would have been reasonable to expect the worst result in living memory, coinciding with the worst pandemic and economic disruption in living memory. Nope – not for the big law firms. Assuming there isn’t a grand conspiracy – where mass sackings were held over until after the survey’s publishing – it seemed very much like any other year.

The hints for such an unexpected positive outcome were the numerous announcements of promotions. You may have been puzzled by the promotions fanfare since it followed so soon after the sombre announcements of pay reductions and forced leave.

It’s confusing to say the least. What’s really going on? 

Large law firms are made up of numerous practice groups that have different exposures to different sectors of the economy. Practice groups exposed to the travel industry for example will be going through a vastly different experience than those exposed to say, mining.

Some firms have announced that staff are being redeployed and retrained, presumably while still on reduced pay.

The AFR reveals that amazingly non-partner fee earner numbers in the surveyed firms increased by 2.5% since January 2020. The increase from one year ago in July 2019 was 5%.

The surveyed firms are a group that can be characterised as BigLaw. Some firms had increases in their non-partner fee earner numbers while others had decreases.

The firms that increased their non-partner fee earner numbers since January 2020 had an average increase of 6%. The average decrease for those firms with reductions in non-partner fee earner numbers was 5%. 

The firm with the largest percentage increase since January 2020 was Lander & Rogers with an increase of 14%. Most of the promotions at this firm were in family law, insurance law and workplace law. These are areas of law that you could almost describe as ‘Covid-friendly’.

Thus we have some evidence of how large law firms have found immunity against the Covid economic calamity. A type of herd immunity has been achieved as a result of large law firms being made up of diverse practice groups combined with firms’ ability to ‘refresh’ staffing in response to changing demand.