Howard Kennedy gambles on partnership revolution

Last of the West End stalwarts faces radical restructure; aims to heal equity-salaried partner divide


Howard Kennedy, the last bastion of the West End, is preparing to break free from its conservative roots by installing a non-lawyer chief executive.

Mark Dembovsky, who joins the firm from Dawsons Solicitors, replaces longstanding senior partner Trevor Newey, who will retire in March after 39 years at the firm, 19 of them as senior partner.

With its large real estate and mid-market corporate practice, Howard Kennedy typifies the West End firm. Yet it lags behind its peer group in terms of ­structural development and has ­resisted any major change.

The decision to look ­outside the tightly held ­equity partnership for Newey’s successor was a radical step for the firm.

Howard Kennedy partner Michael Harris said: “As part of the recruitment process we spoke to consultants and a number of specialists and in the end we came to the conclusion that we’d need a non-lawyer with a professional background.

“The equity partner management committee will be there to support Mark.”

First on the agenda for Dembovsky will be to decide whether the firm should convert to LLP status – a drastic step given that Howard Kennedy has always refused to disclose year-end financials to the market.

“It’s all part of a long-term process,” Harris explained. “We have a lot of projects on. We’re looking at an internal structure review and looking externally to see where Howard Kennedy fits in the marketplace and how we move forward from there.”

Dembovsky will need to heal rifts between the firm’s partners if he is to succeed, a source close to the firm said. “There’s always been tension between the equity partnership and the other partners,” the source said. “It will be a huge challenge to bring the firm together.”

Such disagreements came to the fore in November 2010 when the firm’s head of family Ursula Danagher quit for rival Memery Crystal, making her feelings for the firm clear.

“I’m moving to a more consultative firm where there’s more transparency and more partner involvement in the business,” she said. “It’s a shame not to make the most of partner talent within the firm.” (The Lawyer, 22 November 2010).

But equity partner Craig Emden claimed the firm was in a good position. “We’ve survived the recession and now there’s a good opportunity for Mark to come in to take the firm forward,”
he said.

Dawsons is replacing the chief executive role with that of managing partner, with property partner Martin Codd elected to the post.