A Day in the strife

If ever there was a firm of two halves, it is SJ Berwin. Rarely has a schism between groups of partners been laid quite so bare.

Contested elections are never the harmonious events that firms would generally like to have outsiders believe, but SJ Berwin’s hustings for its new managing partner appear to have been particularly bruising.

The eventual winner, Rob Day, was originally thought a shoo-in. That was until Perry Yam stepped up with a 16-vote lead after round one.

Cue the heavy mob.

The election will leave a bad taste in the mouth of a significant chunk of the firm’s partnership, not least Yam and his supporters – primarily the London tax team and the majority of the real estate group.

But the reality is this is a story that has been ­brewing for most of the year. Nothing speaks quite so eloquently of disharmony as protracted merger talks.
It’s no secret that the seemingly eternal flirtation with US firm Proskauer Rose is the central issue splitting the partnership. What’s new is the extent of that division and the bad feeling created by a widely perceived lack of transparency.

The sheer length of time the Proskauer talks are taking have become something of a joke on both sides of the Atlantic. Background information is ­flying around, off-the-record external briefings
are taking place and while senior partner Jonathan Blake and managing partner until today Ralph Cohen have been doing the rounds making a show of transparency, little of substance is understood to have been communicated.

Compare SJ Berwin’s approach to that of Proskauer, which is understood to have had at least two full partnership meetings to discuss the merger.

While Lovells, Dentons and presumably Hammonds – already working closely with Squire Sanders – have managed to square their deals away, SJ Berwin’s rumbles on. And now, even if the deal gets done, Proskauer must be wondering what will be left for it to merge with.

If Rob Day thought he had a tough task steering SJ Berwin through Cohen’s bizarre sabbatical, his first stint as managing partner proper is likely to prove that that was just a warm-up. The real game is about to begin.