Employment and incentives may not be the words that get most people’s hearts pumping, but for Linklaters the practice area has been a source of strife of late.
Two partners have left the City team that acts for the firm’s corporate clients, including HSBC and RBS, in the past month.
The Lawyer (26 September) reported that Catrina Smith, who advised on the Lehman Brothers fallout, has left for Norton Rose, while former global employee incentives head Janet Cooper has retired from the firm’s partnership to launch virtual HR law firm Tapestry – itself a share scheme boutique formed by former Linklaters lawyers (The Lawyer, 10 October).
All this follows the exit in 2008 of incentives partner Graham Rowlands-Hempel, who is returning in December as a part-time consultant to plug the gap after spending three years at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The shift at one of the market’s leading employee incentives practices dates back to Jeffers’ retirement just over two years ago. Linklaters then merged the employment and incentives practices into a single group and profit centre, headed by incentives partner Gillian Chapman.
“The reason for the merger [was] that we found that the employment and incentives teams were working increasingly together, particularly for the banks,” Chapman explained, adding that a client team will have a mix of employment and incentives specialists.
Although partners’ practices would remain separate, associates would be encouraged to have their fingers in pies on both sides of the now invisible divide.
Chapman said trainees are educated in both employment and incentives but specialise once they are qualified solicitors.
Sources, however, have highlighted a different reality. One source close to the practice insists there is “no synergy” between the two teams.
It hardly helps that the more prestigious incentives practice is practically number one in the market, whereas the employment offering is seen as being third rate.
Another source said the 2009 merger “means share schemes rule the roost. Employment has been peripheral.”
Indeed, the two teams live in different corridors and are said to have little contact. Even Cooper, the firm’s biggest-hitting incentives partner, is said to have been seeing the employment associates for only a short period once a week.
It is little surprise, then, that the unstable London practice has become a target for headhunters looking to shift both partners and junior lawyers. From the summer of 2009 onward the practice is understood to have made a net loss of five associates, with three leaving entirely and three going on maternity leave. Only one is believed to have returned.
Linklaters says the practice now has 15 employment lawyers and 15 incentives lawyers.
Some newly qualified lawyers have joined the practice, but one source estimates that the group has seen a 50 per cent turnover in staff since the merger.
“When you have people leaving it creates a level of instability,” said the source. “People are voting with their feet.”
Chapman is now the only incentives partner, down from three before Jeffers’ retirement, while employment has Jean Lovett as well as Nicola Rabson, a partner since last year.
Linklaters did not make up any partners in the area in 2011 and the firm declined to comment on indications that it is not set to promote any in 2012 either.
“If you look back we had a partner promotion the year before last and clearly we’ll be promoting partners in future years – we’ve got some fantastic associates,” Chapman insisted.