Senior partner elections are sometimes seen as a distraction from the real business of running a law firm, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The senior partner role is classically seen as ambassadorial, with the winning candidate having to represent the brand.
Linklaters has a cerebral managing partner in Simon Davies teamed with a big client man in David Cheyne. But despite Cheyne’s reputation, his introverted approach to the job is now being questioned internally following Freshfields’ snaffling of BP (see City feature).
By contrast, by far the most dynamic magic circle team, both operationally and creatively, is the David Morley-Wim Dejonghe pairing at Allen & Overy. Linklaters is doing interesting things on diversity, but the A&O team is communicating a passion for the issue you could never imagine Cheyne espousing.
Bearing all this in mind, Clifford Chance partners have an important decision to make in their senior partner contest. In the UK corner are Jonathan Elman and Malcolm Sweeting, neither of whom are characterised by a great willingness to embrace communication with the outside world. In the internationalist corner is trilingual M&A superstar Daniela Weber-Rey, who will have to overcome London partners’ innate hostility to the prospect of a German in charge.
I’m aware that a journalist commenting favourably on Weber-Rey’s candidacy hardly helps her cause, as Clifford Chance partners are notoriously counter-suggestive, but the firm stands or falls on being truly global. If it votes for Weber-Rey it will not only endorse its self-declared status, but also become the first magic circle firm with a female senior partner. For a firm that ostensibly cares about diversity, the brand advantages are huge.
As our report on diversity this week reveals, women are still underrepresented in the top firms, and Clifford Chance’s management is desperate for some wins on this. The partners have a chance to put a successful non-British woman in a symbolic role.
Clifford Chance used to be a byword for leading from the front. The outcome of this election will say a lot about the firm and answer this question: is Clifford Chance still a boys’ club?