Herbies scrambles to stem litigation exits

City litigation powerhouse Herbert Smith is suffering an exodus of associates from its disputes department as lawyers vote with their feet over low partnership prospects and rock-bottom morale in the department.

During the past year, 25 associates have resigned from the firm’s contentious teams in London amid accusations that partners fail to communicate properly and that career progression is unclear.

Former associates told The Lawyer that there was concern in the department about a lack of clarity in career progression and that confidence generally was low. One said: “My confidence was getting sapped on a daily basis.”

The latest setback follows criticism meted out to the firm for the way it has handled the ongoing Equitable Life litigation.

In an effort to tackle the problem, Herbert Smith’s head of litigation Sonya Leydecker has introduced eight ‘people partners’ to act as mentors. Each associate is assigned to one partner and can take issues and problems to that person.

The losses come from four of Herbert Smith’s litigation teams: LLA and LLB (general commercial litigation), headed by Philip Carrington and Tim Parks respectively; insurance, with David Reston at the helm; and LLD (arbitration), which is led by Larry Shore. No associates have quit the advocacy team.

Leydecker said that, before she took over as head of litigation from current senior partner David Gold in April, she had begun to examine morale in the department. She has been meeting associates in small groups of six to find out what the issues are in order to address them.

“Having recognised that we do have issues, I’ve been taking steps to address them,” confirmed Leydecker.

She added that new career development programmes were being introduced and denied that partnership prospects were low for current associates.

“The aim is to grow the size of the litigation practice, and we always prefer to grow the practice internally,” Leydecker said. “It’s inevitable that not everyone can become a partner in a City firm.”

This year only one new litigation partner – Dominic Roughton in Tokyo – was made up.

Leydecker said she will continue tackling the issues of communications and morale.