Toy soldiers run riot at White & Case

Ah! The sweet smell of law firm politics. Enjoy the heady bouquet currently wafting from the London offices of White & Case.

All firms have their fair share of inter-group tension, but White & Case is fast becoming more defined by who is in which camp than the work its partners are doing. Blair and Brown have got nothing on these bruisers.

The latest consequence of this is the firm’s shake-up of its London management. It was only last June that an executive committee was put in place. Prior to this, John Bellhouse acted as executive partner for London.

Last year, however, he took on the much more statesman-like role of senior partner, while representatives from five of the office’s practice group areas were charged with looking after “client and business activities”.

Just 16 months later, though, and another system is being put in place (see www.thelawyer.com/item/112060 for details).

It says a lot that the most likely candidate to take on the chief operating-style role is relative newcomer Neil Upton, who joined White & Case only two years ago.

It has also been made clear that this position is not a fancy name for London managing partner, since it appears that there can be no agreement as to who should assume that role.

True, White & Case in London has grown hugely in three years, increasing headcount by 111 per cent. But other US firms in London – Latham & Watkins for example – have also ramped up massively and they don’t have anything like the same political in-fighting.

While London partners have to contend with their own office politics, they also have to fight New York, which still seems incapable or perhaps unwilling to let the Londoners run with their own decisions.

Will Manhattan give the chairman both the power and the remit to forge ahead with important strategic moves? It doesn’t look likely – and this is what’s so frustrating. London, housing a number of real stars, could be an energy-busting powerhouse for White & Case.

Imagine the possibilities if, for example, banking and capital markets could truly leverage their expertise across Europe and the US without banging against the walls of the bureaucratic fiefdoms that New York has allowed to form throughout the firm.

Is it really such a bind for New York to loosen up a bit and let its partners reach their full potential? Playing politics is all very well, but when it runs the risk of hampering what could be great, it’s time to put the toy soldiers away and grow up.