Clifford Chance corporate partner Guy Norman’s imminent move to Dubai, announced by the firm last week, is the latest in a string of relocations that has served to underline the firm’s international strategy.
Norman’s move is significant for a number of reasons. Having been a prominent figure for Clifford Chance on the thick end of its major M&A work over the past two years, it leaves something of a hole in the firm’s City corporate practice. However, it also highlights a key differentiator between the firm and its magic circle competition.
That difference lies in the way Clifford Chance develops its global practice, with Norman by no means the first big name to up sticks in recent months.
London litigation head Nick Munday and co-head of finance Tim Plews have moved to Moscow and Riyadh respectively in recent months. And Norman’s relocation has allowed current Dubai corporate chief Simon Clinton to help bolster the ranks of the Singapore practice.
Senior partner Stuart Popham says the recent glut of big-name relocations is a continuation of a longstanding firm policy.
“It’s what Clifford Chance is about,” he says. “Our ambition has always been international.
“What’s happening now is a combination of that ambition and the more rapid movement of our clients’ focus.”
That movement, according to Popham, is in an eastward direction away from the firm’s Canary Wharf epicentre. And it is a movement that has been catalysed by, rather than borne out of, the financial crisis.
“The difference is that what we saw as happening over a decade is happening over two or three years,” adds Popham. “It’s an acceleration of what we’ve done in the past.”
Despite the longstanding policy, Norman agrees that the recent moves reflect the changing needs of the firm’s clients.
“If you look back 10 years, Europea and the US were probably viewed as the main areas of focus for international M&A practices,” he said. “Now our clients everywhere are increasingly looking for more international and cross-border experience.”
Clifford Chance’s attitude to its global network contrasts with those of its rivals, where overseas positions tend to be filled by partners further down the pecking order.
The consequence for the Clifford Chance lawyers is that they often return to London without established City practices and can be more vulnerable as a result.
As one recruiter puts it: “If I was a partner at some firms now I wouldn’t be putting my hand up to volunteer for three years in Singapore or Dubai.”
Clifford Chance’s move, however, has the benefit of attracting higher-quality recruits outside London.
The recruiter adds: “If a lateral partner looks at Dubai and sees Guy there, it’s going to make it more attractive. And that goes for clients as well.”
Despite the mobility of the Clifford Chance partnership, there is still a ’horses for courses’ element.
Munday says: “The reason we’re seeing top partners going into growth markets is that they’re seen as the most suited to the job.”
However, having a number of well-regarded partners leave London can create some issues over succession.
The recruitment of Macfarlanes partner Tim Lewis will go some way to plugging the gap left by Norman, but other names might now come to the fore in the London corporate team.
Norman says he will maintain his key relationships with the likes of Barclays and Babcock, but will inevitably cede some work elsewhere.
Partner Patrick Sarch is now co-leading the Barclays M&A relationship, while fellow London partners Mark Poulton and David Pudge, the latter of whom advised Man Group on its £1.1bn acquisition of GLG, are other names expected to step up to the plate.
Meanwhile, Norman is widely tipped to return from the Middle East into a management role after a few years.
He will not be drawn on future plans, but says: “As people become more senior in the firm it’s important for them to have experience of the overseas network.”
While the mobile partnership concept may be a longstanding one, Clifford Chance’s international ambitions mean that the exodus from Canary Wharf may have only just begun.