Herbies’ Seine of the times

Even by Parisian standards, the latest departures from Herbert Smith, with three litigators upping sticks for Allen & Overy (A&O), are eye-catching.

On the face of it, this is the latest symptom of an extraordinary recruitment churn at senior levels in France, which we explored earlier this year (The Lawyer, 11 April). However, it hints at something considerably more going on at Herbies itself.

Here’s the story. On Friday 27 May we reported that litigation partners Denis Chemla and Erwan Poisson and arbitration partner Michael Young were leaving as a team for A&O’s Paris office. Getting a top-flight domestic disputes practice is now a major priority for international firms, and France has always been the toughest nut to crack. In this context, a three-partner litigation team resigning is bad enough, but Herbies has had an astounding number of departures from its disputes group, starting with Christa Band to Linklaters back in 2009 and, most spectacularly, investigations head Peter Burrell to launch an anti-bribery practice for Willkie Farr & Gallagher earlier this month (The Lawyer, 9 May), to cite just two examples.

But it’s not just the fact that Herbies – one of the world’s premier disputes brands – has actually been losing litigators, extraordinary though that may be. It’s the fact that they’re going to global or pure transatlantic practices. Chemla left just 10 days after Herbies had proudly announced that it was ­promoting him to head of litigation for Continental Europe, the Middle East and Africa, which must have been a galling moment for the firm. Described by one source close to Herbies as the “beating heart of the practice”, he was not only seen as pivotal to the development of the litigation group, but had been a point man for the alliance between Herbies, Gleiss Lutz and Stibbe. This is hardly a vote of confidence for the firm’s international ambitions, which despite recent investment in Asia basically consists in a dogged adherence to its European alliance model.
In fact, Chemla’s move can only be read one way: as a distinct rebuke to Herbies’ current global mindset.

An introverted management, a wild assumption that Slaughters’ strategy can be transplanted wholesale and an increasingly rattled partnership: these are the downsides of Herbies’ conservatism.

catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.com; www.twitter.com/lawyercatrin