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Law firm bosses know a thing or two about internationalisation and, if recent manoeuvres are anything to go by, it looks like the quickest wits among them are doing their best to position their firms for the ongoing West-to-East power shift.
Yet, with the exception of A&O, when it comes to their own centres of power, few firms seem able to look beyond their home teams.
And now we have Linklaters, like so many firms before it, threatening to elevate a non-Brit to the guardian-of-the-brand senior partner job. Threatening, mind, not actually elevating.
Antwerp-based European managing partner Jean-Pierre Blumberg, who is standing against banking head Robert Elliott and litigation chief John Turnbull, may have wowed his partners at a recent hustings (see News, page 7), but the smart money still says this won’t translate into a win.
We’ve been here before, remember. Fresh from seeing A&O anoint Belgian Wim Dejonghe as managing partner in 2008, the head of Europe at Hogan Lovells legacy firm Lovells challenged incumbent David Harris for the managing partner role. While Harald Seisler had transformed the European practice, his bid was not taken seriously by the dominant London contingent, which laughed off his efforts with Dad’s Army gags.
But UK partners can no longer afford to treat their international counterparts with such condescension. In the past three years firms have been forced to act counterintuitively just to stay in the game, never mind ahead of it. And that is rubbing off in all corners of the market. A few weeks ago the idea of a non-American heading an elite Wall Street firm seemed like lunacy, then Davis Polk went and made a Scotsman its managing partner.
No one expects Blumberg to beat Elliott or Turnbull to the top job, no matter how glittering his platform. But coming as this does after Clifford Chance and Simmons shied away from handing management roles to strong German contenders, the Linklaters election race highlights a trend in the upper ranks of the profession. And a trend that makes a US white-shoe outfit look like a liberal is not one to which any UK firm would willingly subscribe.