SJ Berwin split as election exposes pre-merger rift

As dust settles after contested vote, Day prepares to steer firm to transatlantic tie-up

Rob Day
Rob Day

The managing partner election at SJ Berwin has revealed a deep rift in the partnership as divisions persist over the prospective tie-up with Proskauer Rose.

A closely fought contest gave way to accusations of heavy-handed behaviour as supporters of eventual victor Rob Day attempted to drum up last-minute support.

Meanwhile, large swathes of the firm’s global partnership – including the whole of the London tax team and the majority of the real estate group – supported Day’s opponent Perry Yam in the election, in a move seen by sections of the firm as a protest at the lack of transparency over merger talks.

Day starts his tenure as managing partner today (Monday) after defeating fellow corporate partner Yam. But the final margin of victory – just a handful of votes – was far more narrow than many would have first imagined.

Yam is understood to have led Day by 16 votes after the first round of voting, after which the third candidate – litigation partner Hilton Mervis – withdrew. According to sources at the firm, Day’s supporters then embarked on a desperate bid to increase his vote in the 48 hours before the second round closed on 22 October. The tactic has been painted as aggressive by some sources at SJ Berwin.

“It was very persuasive behaviour from some people,” said one partner. “They had underestimated Perry and so tried to persuade people [to vote for Day].”

SJ Berwin has been in talks with its US suitor since May, but despite being in the public domain since then, details of the negotiations have not been communicated to the wider partnership. Only a small section of the firm’s strategy committee, centred on Day and competition head Stephen Kon, have been involved in discussions with Proskauer.

“There’s been no transparency,” commented another partner. “The firm’s completely divided – you could cut a knife through the middle of it.”

Day denied that there had been any intimidation from either himself or other partners, or that the election revealed a divided firm.

“It was a good, positive process,” he said. “It was never a political campaign.”

Away from London, it is understood that the entire Paris office and the majority of Madrid and Munich also voted for Yam.

Day has taken over from Ralph Cohen, who decided to stand down from the role earlier in the summer, 18 months before the scheduled end of his second term.