Putsch up or shut up

When is a partnership putsch not a putsch?

When is a partnership putsch not a putsch? When it’s at Bevan Brittan.

As first reported by The Lawyer today, in the coming week the partners will be voting on a wholesale management shake-up which could remove Stuart Whitfield from his post as chief executive into an external client-facing role and replace him with non-lawyer Andrew Manning, currently chief operating officer.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the vote is not a done deal by any means and that Bevan Brittan is, naturally enough, spinning this as an exercise in streamlining. But there is another interpretation. We’ve been chronicling developments at the South West giant for the past few months, and it hasn’t been pretty. It was one of the first firms this financial year to admit to redundancies and has been one of the first firms since Hammonds to implement a partner lock-in (sorry – a reinforcement of the partnership agreement to allow only three exits in one year).

Law firms don’t like internal disruption. Nor do many firms like putting non-lawyers in charge. A complete management shake-up only happens at law firms when there’s an appetite or a need for it.

But something has to be done. This year average profit per equity partner is looking to come in at £180,000 – this on an equity partner count that
has declined by 20 per cent from last year.

Many of the current equity partners benefited from a sale-and-leaseback property deal that ­boosted their own profits. Those deals are common enough; the real management challenge is to make sure complacency doesn’t feed into the partnership. In some quarters the current regime is considered to have allowed the firm to drift.

There are wider issues, too. Bevan Brittan’s story will not be the last of its kind. There are plenty of firms that have been even more overoptimistic in the boom and that have had ambitions beyond their means.

Law firms are obsessed with allowing their ­leaders to save face, but the buck has to stop ­somewhere. If your title says you’re in charge, then you take responsibility. If this isn’t a partnership putsch, then perhaps it should be.