When The Lawyer

When The Lawyer broke the news last week that Gary Watson, London managing partner of Hammond Suddards Edge, is joining Ashurst Morris Crisp’s property team within the next six months, a new and more rosy era seemed to dawn for the long-suffering department.

The Ashursts’ property department has been a turbulent place to work; there was the headline-grabbing departure of three partners this year and a mass assistant exodus that kicked off in 1998. This year alone has seen a staggering 11 assistants move to pastures new, while only six have joined.

Property head Simon Cookson presents the losses as the result of a reshaping of the department, but the fallout has inevitably eclipsed the department’s successes in the form of a steady deal flow from an impressive, predominantly occupier, client list. Watson’s arrival could change all that. This is the sector’s biggest story since David Taylor rocked the City real estate scene with his move from Berwin Leighton to Herbert Smith in August. In fact, the two moves are not dissimilar: while Herbert Smith has in no way suffered the personnel losses of Ashursts, both firms have needed to raise their profiles in real estate as the sector grows in importance in the City. Herbert Smith’s team had little visibility, making Taylor the dream candidate to put it on the map. And Watson looks like just the remedy for Ashursts’ property department.

Watson is well known in the property world and still regarded as a rainmaker, despite spending much of his time at Hammonds of late on management. Needless to say, his decision has been met with a show of surprise among his peers. Aside from what the future may hold for Hammond Suddards in London and in property, the burning question is whether Watson will take assistants and clients, such as Allied London Properties, Bastionen Group, Mirror Group and Unilever Superannuation Fund.

His move grows even more intriguing when you consider that Cookson’s three-year tenure is now entering its final six months. Will he stand for re-election? It is doubtful. One scenario is Watson and Ashursts’ former managing partner Ian Nisse battling for pole position in Bush-Gore style. Nisse came back into the department in September after stepping down from his position as managing partner of the firm (The Lawyer, 31 July). With Watson also fresh out of a management role, it could prove to be a nasty case of too many cooks. But so much management experience could of course prove a huge asset to Cookson and his successor. After all, there is plenty to do. Among the department’s current priorities are expanding its business among institutions and exploiting further the buoyant property finance market. Cookson is working on both.

But there is another area where Watson’s arrival can only help Ashursts. The place where the partner and assistant exodus from Ashursts hit the firm hardest is, of course, follow-on recruitment. It currently has 38 assistants, but with 11 partners and a further three to be made up in the spring, the leverage is in need of serious attention. The arrival of someone of Watson’s calibre is bound to help attract more young blood. It also has to be said that Cookson’s commitment to making up three of his team to partner is an admirable step and an important break with the past. Not so long ago, property and planning combined seemed only to promote one assistant to partnership every two years, keen not to dilute their equity. The department has clearly learnt that this was a dangerous habit.

What still warrants attention, however, is the department’s male/female ratio – or lack of one. In 1998 three senior female solicitors resigned from the firm amid claims that not enough women in the firm were being made up to partnership. There is still not a single woman among the department’s 11 partners. Assistant Samantha Lake Coghlan is well regarded but is not yet high enough up the food chain to be made a partner. Clearly, there is still much to do on this score if the department is to start appealing to female lawyers.