Breaking up is hard to do

What a mess. The £4.5m age claim brought by Peter Bloxham against his former firm Freshfields is like a particularly bitter divorce.

The central issue is this: did Freshfields’ attempt to reform its unfunded pension system overlap with its root-and-branch restructure of the partnership, dubbed internally as ‘Size and Shape’?Bloxham, who had to retire from the firm last year aged 54, says not only that had he been 55 he would have been treated better, but that there was also a difference in treatment between the 54-year-olds and those aged between 50 and 53 (see page four).

“I’ve got quite a lot of sympathy for the management,” says a senior magic circle partner in a typical comment, who is devoutly glad this case is not happening to his firm. Indeed, few law firms would have relished the scrum such as happened daily at the London Central Employment Tribunal in Holborn last week – let alone the prospect of another claim.

Bloxham’s 81-page witness statement is so illicitly gripping it feels as if you’re reading somebody’s diary. There’s no villain here; the statement simply charts the breakdown of a relationship. There are misunderstandings that spiral into chaos and there are botched attempts at patching everything up. Bloxham’s forensic narrative is invaded by a touch of despair and frustration in the final pages, when he says: “I remain at a loss to understand why the process went so seriously wrong.”

Significantly, there is a remark early on by finance group head Perry Noble that Bloxham’s “emotional ties are with a firm that in truth doesn’t really exist anymore”. Bloxham comments poignantly: “I do not fully understand what Mr Noble meant.”

Yet some of Bloxham’s former colleagues tend to agree with Noble’s analysis. “It was his life, his family,” says a former Freshfields partner. “When all of that is taken away it’s like a middle-aged woman whose husband has run off with a 22-year-old bouncy secretary.” That remark may appear glib in print, but it was expressed in sympathy and sadness.

Despite the corporatisation of commercial law firms, even the biggest partnerships exist not just as business entities, but as emotional constructs in the minds of their partners. No one following the Bloxham age case could be anything other than convinced that partnership is a fragile organism.