Mark Shillito has emerged as the sole challenger to incumbent James Palmer in the Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) senior partner race

Shillito stood down as head of disputes for the UK and US on Thursday, leaving litigator Damien Byrne Hill to take up his position. His surprise resignation as disputes head has opened the way for his candidacy in this election. It was always expected that Palmer, the current holder of the position, would stand again.

Nominations for the top spot at HSF have now closed, with the vote expected to open formally in the second week of March. The firm will be undergoing two to three rounds of hustings, which will stay open for approximately one week.

Given the dearth of candidates, it is understood that the election will only go to one vote. The entire contest should be wrapped up by the end of March.

The news that only two candidates have stood for the coveted position marks a significant change from previous years, when up to four candidates put their hat in the ring.

James Palmer HSF
James Palmer

The race that saw the incumbent Palmer elected in 2014 was one in which he faced stiff competition. Palmer ultimately prevailed over Sydney-based deputy senior partner Mark Crean, London head of litigation Tim Parkes, and Moscow-based EMEA managing partner Allen Hanen.

The race quickly narrowed when Parkes and Hannen dropped out before the start of formal voting. The subsequent departures of all but Palmer are an indicator of how political the HSF senior partner race has become.

Speaking to a number of sources in the run-up to this election, it was clear that the race this time round was going to be more tight. Many HSF observers had speculated that Palmer would go uncontested, but others suggested that head of arbitration Paula Hodges would put her name forward.

The two-man race between Palmer, a corporate heavyweight with more than 30 years under his belt, and Shillito, until recently the long-serving head of disputes, once again pits the two departments against each other, as previously predicted by The Lawyer.

HSF declined to comment.