Election fever

Ashurst partners are set to vote on the full financial integration between Ashurst and Ashurst Australia but it is the battle for the top managerial job that is really getting partners talking.

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There’s election fever at Ashurst, as partners prepare for a raft of groundbreaking votes on the firm’s future.

We’d imagine that current senior partner Charlie Geffen is getting a little tense, as the firm votes not only on its leadership but on the full financial integration between Ashurst and Ashurst Australia.

Ashurst officially voted to tie up with its Aussie mates Blake Dawson in September 2011 (26 September 2011).

At the time, a partner vote on full financial integration was toted for 2014, but it’s thought that the love-in between the two firms has been so successful that the process has been fast-tracked to tomorrow (26 September) – two years to the day after the firm’s initial nuptuals.

Partners insist that the vote is merely a box-ticking exercise, and all the hard graft has already been done.

Over the past few years, both the UK and Aussie sides have been tinkering with their equity structures to bring them more into line – the UK side of the firm asking partners to put in capital upfront for the first time, while legacy Blake Dawson scrapped its all-equity partnership by bulking up its fixed-income partner base (28 June 2013).

Perhaps more controversial is the merged firm’s vote on its new leadership. The current senior partner position, held by Charlie Geffen in London since 2008, is being dropped and replaced by a newly-elected chairman role (11 July 2013). Geffen is in the running for the post, alongside litigator and current Ashurst board member Ben Tidswell. Former-Blakes competition partner Peter Armitage based in Sydney has stepped forward for the position.

Do either of these two really stand a chance against the eminent Geffen? As an incumbent with a strong management and client book, he is easily the favourite. But Tidswell is a strong candidate, too. “Ben is a popular chap,” says one former partner, while another adds, “If Ben has put his hat in the ring, he’s a serious contender. He’s a really super guy, and is really well liked.”

Still, no big event comes without its conspiracy theories – like the moon landing and 9/11 before it, Ashurst’s chairman election has set the rumour mill churning. According to one source, “For anyone to stand against Charlie is a sensation.” The source continues, “He’s streamlined the organisation so anyone who could compete with him has already been asked to leave, or put on the highest possible number of points.” (However, such a theory is met with derision within the Ashurst hierarchy.)

Another former partner speculates that the election was a mere formality, adding, “It’s a shame there isn’t a non-Charlie option, as Ben isn’t enough of a protest vote.”

That said, Tidswell is likely to have to vote of a hefty number of the firm’s 67-odd disputes partners globally. The current management team of Charlie Geffen and managing partner James Collis has a corporate slant, thanks to the pair’s transactional expertise. This election could be an opportunity to swing the barometer back towards disputes, as it was in the pre-Geffen days of litigator Simon Bromwich’s leadership.

Over the past five years, Ashurst has had its fair share of financial issues witnessing its profit per equity partner (PEP) diminish by a third, dropping from £1,040,000 in the fat years of 2007/08 to £680,000 in 2012/13.

Last year, PEP fell from £744,444 to £680,000, while the value of each equity point dropped 7.3 per cent from roughly £16,200 to £15,000. This year the firm’s revenue also flatlined, inching up marginally by 0.3 per cent to hit the £323m mark (5 July 2013).

Whether Geffen extends his leadership, only time will tell – but, the election is sure to have set chins wagging behind closed doors at Ashurst.