The three partners vying to replace David Cheyne as Linklaters’ senior partner put forward their cases at the firm’s partner conference in Paris earlier this month, with the contest still widely seen as too close to call.
What emerged at the conference – reportedly the best-attended ever staged – were material differences between the style and content of the candidacies.
While the consensus among partners prior to the Paris get-together was that the election would be a straight fight between banking head Robert Elliott and litigation chief John Turnbull, the emergence of a third credible candidate has thrown a cat among the magic circle pigeons.
In the eyes of many partners, and to the surprise of a few, European managing partner Jean-Pierre Blumberg gave the most accomplished presentation of the three.
“The really interesting guy was Jean-Pierre,” said one Linklaters partner. “He did well and was very popular with the partners.
“He talked a lot about the firm having to be international. He wanted more flexibility about the lockstep so the firm could grow.”
Whoever takes the honours will have to take 50 per cent of the vote, with second preferences being counted under the single transferable vote (STV) system if no one emerges as outright winner after the first round.
Another partner commented: “As the Labour Party discovered, one of the great things about the [STV] system is that it can inject a degree of unpredictability into the outcome [of a poll].”
Nevertheless, although the positive showing may set the Belgian up for another tilt at the job next time round and could start the lockstep debate that some partners have been calling for, the vote is still widely seen as a two-way dogfight.
“He [Blumberg] may well get a decent vote from Europe, but he probably won’t have enough support to carry him through,” said one insider.
The source added that, although Elliott remained the slight favourite, the contest was shaping up to be far closer than first imagined.
Elliott has already stood for the role, losing out to Cheyne in 2006, while many Linklaters stalwarts have long seen Turnbull as an ideal candidate for the job.
“A lot of people would like to see a senior partner who’ll challenge senior management more and Turnbull would do that,” said a former partner. “He would liberate people to create a more old-fashioned collegiate environment.
“Robert would be less inclined to do anything on that front. He’s happier out there with clients as an ambassador.”
However, another partner claimed that Elliott’s pitch to partners was based on the concept of re-establishing partner confidence following the culls that took place during Cheyne’s term.
“With all the pressure on partners at the moment Robert was talking a lot about moving beyond that and building in confidence,” the partner said. “He wanted the culture to move back to one that allows partners to take a chance with their practices.
“Turnbull would look to minimise central management and give more decision-making power back to partners in certain practice areas and geographies.”
Voting will continue throughout April, with Linklaters’ newly elected partners being given the opportunity to vote once they join the partnership officially on 1 May. The result is expected shortly afterwards.