Former chief Cornell calls time on Clifford Chance career

Former Clifford Chance managing partner Peter Cornell has decided to resign from the magic circle firm.

As first revealed on www. (10 October), Cornell will leave Clifford Chance at the end of the calendar year, having relinquished the managing partner role in May.

Chairing a conference run by The Lawyer last week on strategic management in law firms, Cornell has just spent three months on sabbatical, mostly surfing. “I have a bit of a passion for it,” he says.

While Cornell had kept an open mind about remaining at the firm after stepping down from the top job, it became increasingly evident that it would have been difficult to slot into another role.

“When you’ve done the top job it’s best to move on, or you can stop it up for the new guys coming through,” he says.

Cornell says he is is considering a number of ideas, but independent consultancy looks to be a preferred option. If so, he would be treading a well-worn path. Former Clifford Chance managing partners Geoffrey Howe and Tony Williams have, in different ways, adopted this approach, though Cornell’s immediate predecessor Michael Bray is one of the few former managing partners to throw himself back into full-time fee-earning.

Currently on the board of the Madrid Business School, Cornell has also been approached by Tom de Long of Harvard Business School to see if there are some projects they can work on together.

“I don’t think a general counsel role is for me, but I’d be interested in a leadership role in another organisation – maybe a not-for-profit organisation,” Cornell explains. A number of US firms have approached him, he says, adding: “It’s very nice, but it would conflict. It wouldn’t be right.”

Cornell was Clifford Chance managing partner for four years, during which time he helped to stabilise the firm through a particularly difficult period, including the 2002 US associate memo incident when there were unfounded suggestions that the firm was padding bills – something that developed into a full-blown crisis.

It came only a year after the collapse of Arthur Andersen, and Cornell says that disaster could have been around the corner.

“I think that was the first time the partnership as a whole was on edge,” he explains. “They realised it was serious and the cynicism disappeared. But I think the firm was in the death zone.”

The US took up much of Cornell’s time, particularly in the last year of his office, when he moved to New York. “We should have done more after the merger – we underestimated the distance,” he notes.

“David [Childs] will do really well as a managing partner,” Cornell says. Arguing that his departure is well timed, he adds: “I was always determined to get out on a high.”