The Geffen game

We all know the platinum rule of merger votes: if you’re not going to get the answer you want, don’t put it to the partners. Just ask Herbert Smith, which got snubbed when its European allies Gleiss Lutz and Stibbe ran a poll on whether to pursue a three-way merger.

Enter Ashurst, which has already considered this dilemma. Or more specifically Charlie Geffen, Ashurst senior partner and wannabe merger supremo. Geffen, fresh from sealing a tie-up with Australia’s Blake Dawson last year, is doing his utmost to make sure that when he comes to putting a US merger to a partnership vote, as many of his colleagues are behind him as possible.

Here’s the Geffen strategy that we report today. First, invite partners to dinner. Give them a push-button machine to record their votes, then ask them to answer yay or nay to a list of questions to which the only sensible answer can be ‘yes’. ‘Do you want to be an elite global firm with a massive PEP?’, for instance. Then when you’ve got the mandate for being big, good and profitable, throw in the US merger question.

It’s so similar to the Yes, Prime Minister exchange on the power of leading questions that one wonders if Geffen has ditched the firm’s consultants at Deloitte and turned to Sir Humphrey Appleby for strategic advice. Once you’ve established that everyone wants to be international, elite and highly remunerated, who could possibly say no to a Stateside merger?

And it means that months down the line when Geffen asks partners to vote for real on an American deal, anyone who answered yes after a few glasses of wine round the table will barely have a leg to stand on if they start campaigning against a tie-up.

It’s a superb masterclass in strategic management.

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