Just when you thought it was safe, along comes yet another Clifford Chance US story.
This time the news, as reported in this week’s issue of The Lawyer, is that Jim Benedict, head of the firm’s global litigation and dispute resolution department, is stepping down.
On the face of it, Benedict’s move seems perfectly normal. After spending four years in the post, during which he had a brief spell as US managing partner, the legacy Rogers & Wells lawyer has decided to return to full-time fee-earning.
This all seems fair enough until you remember that this is Clifford Chance we’re talking about. And if there are conspiracy theories floating around, with Clifford Chance, you can bet they usually turn out to be right. One wonders if the firm’s Canary Wharf office was built on a grassy knoll.
So, with Benedict, the story that he is going back to full-time lawyering just doesn’t ring true.
Bear in mind that this is happening just as Clifford Chance’s management is finally attacking its US strategy with some gusto, especially the future of its West Coast operation, which Benedict, incidentally, was heavily involved in brokering two years ago.
Against this backdrop, what is interesting about Benedict is what his move means in symbolic terms.
No one can question the fact that his practice area has been one of the true success stories of the 2000 merger. The man is an absolute powerhouse in terms of billings. Notching up 3,000 hours a year is not unheard of, given that Benedict is reputed to sleep for just four hours a night.
But maybe it is this style of deal doing and Benedict’s ‘lead from the front’ type of management that Clifford Chance, desperate to kick the US into shape, is attempting to get away from, certainly in terms of cultural perception.
It is no accident that Benedict’s replacement, Peter Chaffetz, is a lateral hire from Chadbourne & Parke, who moved to the firm in 2000.
With this new broom approach, Clifford Chance seems keen to sweep away old cultural divisions that having a legacy Rogers & Wells lawyer in a global position may have created in the past.
It seems to me, though, that by taking this approach, Clifford Chance is balancing on a knife-edge.
While it wants to implement a true cultural integration of the US, at the same time it cannot risk alienating one of its true stars. Remember that Benedict’s specialism in securities litigation is one area where there are huge cross-selling opportunities between its East and West Coast offices.
But just a few months ago the New York market was awash with speculation that Benedict was on the market.
The firm’s management moved quickly, awarding Benedict, as well as a small group of other US rainmakers, extra points as part of a three-year package.
However, whether money will be enough to curb a bout of itchy feet is open to debate. Remember, it was Benedict, way back in 2001, who voluntarily reduced his points from 200 units to 100 points.
It is an old adage of lawyers to say that they don’t move for money, but in Benedict’s case major ducats really don’t appear to be his motivation, which begs the questions: what is his motivation and can Clifford Chance continue to drive him?
Spring-cleaning may seem like a good idea, but Clifford Chance has to be careful not to go too far.