Most managing partners would kill to have Andrew Lilley’s problems.
The Travers Smith managing partner presides over a firm that has maintained its brand, its profitability and its market share, and yet Travers has that batsqueak of insecurity that is not present at lesser firms.
As Lilley is at pains to stress in our feature today, it’s all about culture. Yet at the same time partners are aware that the very conservatism that has defined Travers’ brand poses strategic and philosophical questions for the firm. There is a widespread assumption in the legal market that conservatism equals quality, but it’s not a causal link. Lilley’s challenge is to ensure that Travers’ instinctive distaste for radicalism does not inhibit the management from confronting the big strategic issues.
There’s way more navel-gazing at Travers than many outsiders imagine. Can it continue to attract attention from overseas firms whose clients are increasingly tempted to use Freshfields? Unlike Slaughter and May, the firm cannot trade on having a defined best friends grouping, so keeping up those relationships is virtually a full-time job.
And then there’s the US issue. The hire of US securities partner Charles Casassa is an explicit admission that the firm is not immune from transatlantic pressures. Indeed, corporate partners admit to having missed out on mandates because of a lack of US capability. In the same vein, many at the firm were relieved when the funds-driven merger talks between SJ Berwin and Proskauer Rose ended with no deal. That gave Travers some breathing space – an SJ Berwin with a serious US private equity piece would have created a serious competitive headache.
Despite the studied insouciance of partners, some admit privately that there is a plan B, and that is merger. It’s a market truism that Travers could do a US deal tomorrow. Only Latham and Ropes & Gray would really work, but Latham (whose approaches Travers rebuffed several years ago) is doing very nicely, thank you, while Ropes has gone for the rock ’n’ roll option in London. The last thing Travers needs is a merger that would squander its brand. Anyone remember Gouldens?