New boss Day faces tough task uniting a divided SJ Berwin partnership

As the new managing partner at SJ Berwin, Rob Day today steps into what must be one of the most challenging jobs in the City.

Rob Day
Rob Day

As the new managing partner at SJ Berwin, Rob Day today steps into what must be one of the most challenging jobs in the City.

Day has inherited a firm that is facing what could be the most critical time in its 28-year history.

Merger talks with Pros­kauer Rose have been ongoing since May, and yet noises from within suggest that the partnership is still bitterly divided over the merits of the tie-up.

“Whether the merger goes ahead or it doesn’t, there’ll be people leaving,” says one former SJ Berwin partner.

There have already been a number of high-profile depart­ures around the international network since news of the Proskauer deal first came to light.

Munich EU and competition head Alexander Rinne left for Milbank Tweed Hadley McCloy in May, ­leaving just one partner in the German competition team. Also in Ger­many, financial markets chief Achim Pütz joined Dechert in September.

In the UK, September saw the departure of real estate head Jon Vivian and three other partners for Irwin Mitchell.

Even those who are broadly in favour of the merger have been left frustrated by what is perceived to be a lack of transparency from the small knot of partners who occupy the inner sanctum of the strategy committee.

Day readily acknowledges that communication has been a problem at the firm.

“The issue of internal and external communication is one that I’ll be addressing,” he says. “When you go into difficult periods everyone will tell you that you need to communicate until it hurts. And they tell you that for a reason – because it’s true.”

At the top of Day’s agenda is a consultation process with partners over what is likely to be a shake-up of the firm’s governance.

Day will not be drawn on the details of any changes before he talks to the wider partnership, but he is expected to make changes to both the strategy committee and a management committee described by one partner as “toothless” in its current guise.

“We need to bring in a broader church from different practice groups and geographies,” Day admits, adding that “greater clarity” on the roles of the committees and their members is required.

Details of the Proskauer talks have not been discussed openly among the full partnership since the firm’s partner conference in June, when negotiations would have been at an early stage.

Conversely, it is understood that the US firm has held at least two full partner meetings in recent months.

In his favour, Day does have a sizeable amount of goodwill in the bank after he stepped in to the acting managing partner role last year when his predecessor Ralph Cohen took a sabbatical.

During his brief tenure, Day had to tell partners that quarterly profit distributions would continue to be withheld – a situation that persisted until early this year. The feeling within the firm is that Day handled a difficult situation well.

However, Day is closely associated with an old guard that has overseen a period of turmoil for SJ Berwin.

He is also one of only a handful of partners, alongside competition head Stephen Kon, head of corporate Steven Davis and ­litigation chief Craig Pollack, who are close to the Pros­kauer talks.

Corporate partner Perry Yam, who narrowly lost to Day in last month’s vote after litigation partner Hilton Mervis departed in the first round of voting, is perceived as being separate from the cabal that has ruled the firm in recent times.

“Rob’s clearly identified with the merger because he’s one of the partners most involved,” says one partner who believes that Yam’s strong performance in the election can in part be put down to dissatisfaction with the status quo.

“I think there was a protest vote element in there,” continues the partner. “We’ve been in a period we haven’t enjoyed much and people wanted change. The feeling was that things would change more under Perry.”

While accepting that the election process allowed people to discuss the issues affecting the firm, Day strongly denies that it is a divided partnership and insists that he has “a strong mandate”.
“All three candidates had the same goals in mind. Everyone’s shooting for the same thing. It’s not about ’old vs new’.”