Cobbetts has announced a major partner shake-up in a bid to incentivise its lawyers in a new world of competition.

It follows the Clementi legislation which allows outside investors to move into the sector along with new High Street rivals like Tesco and the AA.

The shake-up comes as Cobbetts has been trimming partner numbers in a bid to become more efficient.

Around 20 went in 2006 and numbers are now 97 against 111 last May.

Cobbetts, which has offices in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and London employing 820 staff, about 30 lower than previously, will see the changes bring an all equity partnership.

Nevertheless, this will be split into variable equity partner (VEP) and assured equity partner (AEP) status.

The former will be paid purely on the profitability of the business while the latter will have 90 per cent of their earnings guaranteed with the remaining 10 per cent profit-related.

So far 44 partners have signed up for AEP status and 28 for VEP. Eight are undecided and have until the end of the financial year to make up their minds.

Another 17 coming up for retirement in the next 3-7 years stay in "defined package" deals.

Managing partner Michael Shaw said: "The Clementi legislation will allow outside investors into law firms.

"The need for critical mass will create a war for talent and we wanted a structure appropriate for our business, retaining the ethos of the firm but capable of driving us forward, allowing young lawyers to come through and make their contribution." The new partnership structure has taken 18 months to work through.

"This development represents the final element to be put in place following the restructuring of the firm, which has grown from a single site regional office in 2001 to an integrated national service provider, which manages to retain a true regional focus," a statement said.

A new director role is also being introduced "in order to create a clear career path for the firm's lawyers, giving them greater involvement in the running of the business and allowing them to make a significant contribution to the way in which it operates".

Ten individuals make director level.

Mr Shaw, went on: "These changes recognise our shared responsibilities in achieving both our own strategic goals and those of our clients while preserving the much envied collegiate ethos of the firm.

"In particular, the new director layer is critical to meeting the longer-term strategic needs of the business, encouraging talented young lawyers to take more of a leadership role and rewarding them with a share in its success."

He added: "Two years ago, we identified the need for a new, more sustainable structure that would allow us to more closely match our ambitions and those of our clients. The part-ners and directors constitute the senior stake-holding group in the firm and our new structure will allow all of those people to take a more active role in developing the business."

In 2007 Cobbetts reported turnover of £58.5 million and profit per equity partner - there were 30 at that time - of £240,000, up from £190,000.

Mr Shaw said he expected turnover this year to be in the £62-63 million region.