Leader

As Herbert Smith embarks on its elections for senior partner, one thing ought to be on the minds of the two candidates – how is the firm going to regain momentum?

Litigation head David Gold and practice partner Richard Fleck, who are in polite but cold-eyed competition for the job, don’t have a crisis on their hands. Most City firms would kill to be in a position where average profit per equity partner is at £700,000.

On that basis, Gold and Fleck have an easier run than their counterparts at Lovells and Simmons. Lovells’ business is going well, but Lesley MacDonagh’s resignation has unearthed a number of fault lines. The partners’ dining room is currently seething with enough plots and counterplots to make New Labour look like a bunch of Quakers.

There’s even more to play for at Simmons, which is still only limping along. Finance head Mark Dawkins has presided over a strong performance in his department. Indeed, the finance group is always delighted to let the world know it has outperformed the rest of the firm, which can only help Dawkins’ election campaign.

Herbert Smith may have smoother internal politics and strong numbers, but it has drifted nevertheless. It’s been strangely unable to capitalise on its M&A successes of 2000 and 2001, and now faces serious competition with Lovells and Ashurst to be the top choice outside the magic circle.

Lovells may have to vote in a hardcore City type to bolster its boardroom standing, but it’s had roles in most of the biggest bids recently, notably the Telegraph Group. Ashurst, despite its current wobbles, has managed to get onto most of the top deals since Safeway, when it acted for the winning bidder WM Morrison. It got the nod from Philip Green after Freshfields had to pull out, and it landed Lloyds TSB on Abbey after Linklaters opted for RBS.

By contrast, Herbert Smith was nowhere to be seen on Safeway and has been invisible on Abbey – a deal the entire City has been steaming into. Insiders cry conflicts, but it seems that Herbies’ desperation to stay close to private equity giant KKR is costing the firm mandates. Mooning after one client, however powerful and acquisitive, could be a tactical mistake, especially if Slaughter and May gets the call from KKR’s gatekeeper Simpson Thacher.

Fleck and Gold, take note: Herbert Smith may have been the world’s favourite law firm two years ago, but it just got a little too comfortable. Time for the hair shirt.