Like marriage, a law firm partnership was traditionally a relationship entered into for life. But times have changed.
No firm knows this better than Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Its restructuring, documented in detail by The Lawyer, saw the firm cull scores from its equity from mid-2006 onwards, with many – some Freshfields lifers among them – leaving the firm voluntarily to take advantage of expiring pension scheme benefits.
A rough patch for the firm, certainly, and one brought about largely because partners felt they had been presented with something of a Hobson’s choice. But Freshfields has bounced back; its resilience appears to be immense.
Perhaps more importantly, the departees have also found that while breaking up has not been easy, life goes on even when partnership at the magic circle has ended.
Insolvency partner Peter Bloxham, who joined Freshfields after qualifying in 1977, effectively spent his entire qualified career at the firm – nearly three decades. His age discrimination law suit against the firm ensured that Freshfields’ internal politics dominated the headlines for more than a year. Although his planned retirement from the partnership was brought forward by six months due to Freshfields’ infamous pension reforms, Bloxham says the choices open to him post-Freshfields softened the blow of the parting.
“I had been planning to retire and was going to take some time off to start thinking about what to do next,” he says. “Because I left a bit earlier I didn’t really do any thinking and before I could an opportunity at the Pru came along that interested me, so I accepted it.”
Although he remains self-employed and essentially independent from Prudential, Bloxham has taken on the role of a with-profits policyholder advocate at the life insurance giant – one of many positions he was offered on leaving Freshfields.
“I’ve been really lucky in that on leaving a magic circle firm there are lots of opportunities out there,” he says. “At a time when morale was pretty low, it was very flattering that a lot of people made approaches to me.
“I didn’t go to another firm because I was in retirement mode already and I knew what a slog it would be to recreate the atmosphere and working environment I’d had at Freshfields. I wanted to move on and I felt there were plenty other opportunities out there. I still feel that.”
Admitting that he found the offer of the job at the Pru – which is a non-legal role – surprising, Bloxham adds that there are still many areas he is keen to apply his talents to.
“With the skills I have and the markets where they are, there would be plenty opportunities for consulting roles or non-executive director positions,” he explains. “The pensions sector also interests me a lot. There’s a lot happening there and there’s a crossover between pensions and insolvency.”
That said, Bloxham admits that it was a wrench to leave his partners – and friends – at Freshfields.
“Initially I felt quite lonely,” he says. “Now I have a small team working with me and it’s pleasant. It reminds me of the early days working for Freshfields.”
For finance partner Ian Harvey-Samuel, whose career at Freshfields was considerably shorter than Bloxham’s, the move out of the magic circle has also been a positive one. Having joined the firm’s Singapore office from the local operation of fellow magic circler Allen & Overy, Harvey-Samuel spent a total of 13 years at Freshfields, nine of those as a partner.
However, for him the transition from Freshfields Singapore to Freshfields London was not entirely smooth running.
“When I became a partner in 1997 it was in a much smaller office where it was easier to get to know people,” he says. “Coming back to the UK is challenging for any partner who’s spent a significant amount of time in another office and, for me, was even more difficult as I wasn’t a homegrown Freshfields partner.
“If you look around, there’s a strong correlation between those magic circle partners who’ve worked outside the UK before returning to London and those partners who’ve moved to work in US firms’ overseas offices in the UK.”
He adds: “It was less difficult moving from Freshfields in London to Shearman & Sterling in London than from Freshfields in Singapore to Freshfields in London.”
That said, his Shearman colleague corporate partner Lois Moore – speaking on behalf of herself and litigation partner Jo Rickard – says: “The cultural change between the magic circle and a US firm isn’t as different as everyone makes it out to be.”
For banking star David Ereira, who spent 17 years at Freshfields before joining Linklaters just over a year ago, life after Freshfields continues in the magic circle. This, he says, was a natural choice.
“I think it’s unusual to move from one magic circle firm to another, but it’s not unheard of,” says Ereira. “There was a huge range of opportunities open to me out of law and in law and I had to give very careful consideration to what I wanted to do. I chose another magic circle firm because I felt it would be an interesting and satisfying challenge. So far, I’ve been right.”
While having friends within Linklaters was an obvious attraction for Ereira, being able to reasonably gauge the firm’s expectations all but sealed the deal for him.
“A lot of the time people move to firms and after they get there find out what the place they thought they were moving to may or may not be,” he says. “I was able to estimate fairly early on what Linklaters was looking for.”
Having begun his legal career at Wilde Sapte (now Denton Wilde Sapte) in the 1980s, Ereira has now been a partner in three different firms. He believes this level of mobility is a good thing both for partners and partnerships.
“It’s good that people no longer spend their entire working life in one firm,” he says. “I think it’s unnatural, in a way, that people assume they have such a particularly narrow career path – particularly in the law.
“People that qualify as lawyers have tended to stay with one firm or move once. I think that’s incredibly narrow – lawyers should be doing lots of different things in lots of different ways.”
Arguably, it is possible to gain a wide variety of experiences within one firm, particularly as firms continue to expand geographically and hone their skills in a number of niche areas.
For Bloxham it was precisely this factor that kept his role at Freshfields interesting for 30 years. Having joined at a time when the firm was a generalist, a five-year stint in Paris saw Bloxham focus on banking then, when the economy stalled in the early 1990s, he turned his attentions to insolvency.
“The great privilege I had was that, while I was doing my job for a long time, it was always changing – either because I was doing something different or because each assignment was in a different sector or had its own unique problems to grapple with,” he says.
However, from Harvey-Samuel’s point of view, the sheer scale of the work carried out by the magic circle almost precludes its lawyers from experiencing much variety.
“The magic circle is so siloed that there are things you could do, but they’re done by a different team so you don’t get to do them,” he explains. “People come here [Shearman] to work across a wider spectrum. There are less restrictions about the kind of work you can do without treading on people’s toes.”
As hackneyed as the expression may be, variety is, to a large extent, the spice of life. Breaking up a partnership relationship will never be an easy thing to do, but for the sake of individual professional development it could be essential.
As Ereira points out: “The moral of the story is that at any stage of your career, you are able to, if you want to, move on and do new things and take on new challenges. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being comfortable and secure without challenging that. Actually, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
but can there be happiness after the magic circle? Ex-Freshfields partners believe there can