The Leader Column

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at White & Case's partnership retreat last week. The management proposals – revealed last week by The Lawyer – are intensely ambitious.

To recap: White & Case aims to double profits per equity partner by 2005 to $1.3m (£809,000) from $730,000 (£454,500), and not all from de-equitisation, that ugly, oddly fashionable euphemism for partner culling. (Indeed, there are whispers that a number of newly made up partners have not gone into full equity.) White & Case lawyers will now have to be a lot more productive; current revenues per lawyer stand at $427,000 (£266,000), while the management is aiming for $550,000 (£343,500) – even this will only take it to Winston & Strawn or King & Spalding levels, rather than the levels of other New York-based firms.

So how will White & Case hike profits from a 32 per cent margin to 38 per cent? Maximising revenues from key clients is one answer. It wants to double major relationship revenues, aiming for three relationships with more than $20m (£12.5m) and 10 with more than $10m (£6.2m). There'll also presumably be some tinkering with the profit share-out. In typical New York fashion, there is a concentration of billings among quite a small number of senior people in New York, echoed in the distribution.

White & Case has had the misfortune to be regarded as a kind of secondary modern version of Shearman & Sterling; lots of brave investment overseas, but the brand back home hasn't quite weathered the storm. The firm's most exportable product of project finance has inevitably lent itself to a more scattered global operation, and London and New York simply aren't big enough. Put simply, there are too few hubs and too many spokes. The opportunity to bulk up in London through hooking up with Rowe & Maw was politically unacceptable for White & Case two years ago, but a London merger would now get the green light. Meanwhile, the younger generation of German partners would welcome a more overtly managed firm.

The proposals mean a culture shift for White & Case. This will be the last full partnership conference before the next management elections. You can bet that the camps will start to form – most probably around the two obvious contenders for the next managing partner – New York finance partner Eric Berg and M&A partner Tim Goodell.

The scheme also has the stamp of someone else. The éminence grise of CC's mid-1990s transformation into a global law firm – then also known as Geoffrey Howe's executioner – has quietly re-emerged at White & Case. Kevin Geary, take a bow.