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Herbert Smith faces a potential legal wrangle following its reluctance to let go of French competition ace Claude Lazarus
Lazarus, the only non-UK member on Herbert Smith's management board, who is set to lead his team to Clifford Chance, is just waiting for the firm to give the green light at an imminent partner meeting. Lazarus is under contract to work out a two-year notice period and it is understood that the firm is keen to keep him for as long as possible. However, he has indicated that he is unwilling to work more than three months and sources claim that he would go to the French Bâtonnier if Herbert Smith tries to force him to stay longer. French law on restrictive covenants differs from the UK's and Lazarus believes the contract restricts his ability to act as an independent lawyer. Herbert Smith opened in Paris in the 1960s, a long time before the merger of the professions of conseils juridiques and the avocats, which restricted the rights of EU firms opening in France. Before the merger of the two professions, UK law firms in Paris were not subject to any restrictions by French law. This means that any arbitration would be conducted in the UK by an arbitrator appointed by the Law Society. However, it is understood that Lazarus is threatening to go to the Bâtonnier claiming that UK laws on restrictive covenants are incompatible with French law. A few years ago, partners at Wilde Sapte (now Denton Wilde Sapte) went to the Bâtonnier over a covenant clause allowing only two partners to leave each year. When Wilde Sapte's proposed merger with Arthur Andersen fell through, a number of partners quit, but the contract meant that those at the back of the queue would have to wait four or five years to leave. Because the firm opened in Paris after 1990, an arbitrator was appointed jointly by the Bâtonnier and the Law Society. However, the arbitrator decided that the partnership agreement should be applied and the decision set a precedent on French ethical principles of independence. Herbert Smith confirmed that it is negotiating with Lazarus over the terms of his departure. Lazarus was unavailable for comment.