Tough at the top

New CC senior partner Stuart Popham admits to a feeling of euphoria upon winning the role, but says reality is starting to bite. Dearbail Jordan reports

Stepping into the offices of Clifford Chance is always a slightly unnerving affair. The Gotham City-style structure seems to have been built with the sole purpose of intimidating anyone who enters the studiously mute interior.

But lately there is something else that seems to be permeating the corridors of 200 Aldersgate Street. The slightly prickly air appears to be charged with an atmosphere that is at once both sinister and guarded.

However, within minutes of sitting down with Stuart Popham, global head of finance and the newly-elected senior partner, it soon becomes clear what is causing this distinct feeling of unease. Clifford Chance has become, dare it be said, the New Labour of law.

Peter Cornell, managing partner at the firm, already set the tone for the new phase in Clifford Chance’s expansion when, prior to his election in April last year, he rammed home the message of ‘giving the partnership back to the partners’.

Since then Cornell has spoken of making sure “the lines of communication are right”. For underneath this Blairite-type lingo another message had emerged: communication had become a problem at Clifford Chance.

As the partnership had grown – namely through the tripartite merger with US firm Rogers & Wells and German firm Pünder Volhard Weber & Axster – those ‘lines of communication’ had been crumpled by the sheer weight of new lawyers.

There had also been a significant passage of time in which Clifford Chance was without a senior partner. After Keith Clark decided to step down early, chief executive Michael Bray filled the role in the meantime. Bray, too, relinquished his position early and Cornell became chief executive (he is now the firm’s managing partner since this year’s governance review); so for a while it has been a one-man show.

Cornell is now attempting to wrest control of the ‘communication’ issue. Beneath Cornell’s touchy-feely exterior, he has already decided how he wants to give the partnership back to the partners; and in his quest for control, it is doubtful that he will be easily swayed from this strategy.

How Popham will work as senior partner within Cornell’s vision will be interesting. It is not quite clear how he will respond to Cornell’s Blairite instinct for centralisation.

This is compounded by the fact that the Popham I encounter seems to be at odds with the man I have met in the past.

Not that the imminent trappings of power have already begun to affect him (Popham officially steps into the senior partner role on 1 January next year). In fact, it is doubtful it ever will go to the head of this resolutely down-to-earth lawyer.

Rather more noticeable is Popham’s distinct nervousness. Could it be that he is mindful of Cornell’s preoccupation with ‘communication’?

Certainly, throughout the interview Popham constantly and disconcertedly flicks his eyes towards the requisite PR man nearly every time he answers a question, almost as if to check if what he is saying is okay.

In fairness, Popham does admit to a feeling of trepidation at the new job. “Trepidation only in the sense of the enormity of the task,” he says. “You go from the euphoria of winning – and that’s only natural – to thinking that this is a big job.

“It’s a bit like any job I’ve taken on in the firm, either an internal job or acting for a large client. I think it would only be natural to have the occasional butterfly in the stomach or moment of contemplation.”

It would be surprising, however, if the uncomfortable tickle of nerves is being aggravated by the prospect of the external responsibilities that the senior partner role encompasses. After all, Popham’s considerable charm is only surpassed by his ambassadorial flair.

It is also worth remembering that, as global head of finance, Popham helped smooth the merger of Clifford Chance’s worldwide finance practice, which entailed him spending the best part of two years flying around the world to every corner of the firm’s network.

No, the challenge now for Popham will be the internal workings of Clifford Chance. Following the corporate governance review in June this year, the firm reverted back to tradition. The executive became the management committee and the board became the partnership council. Cornell sits at the head of the management committee, which deals with the day-to-day running of the firm, while Popham sits at the head of the partnership council, which acts as the firm’s conscience.

Asking Popham whether he dreads the idea of conflicts arising between the two committees draws an emphatic “no”. “You have to ascertain if there’s a difference of opinion, if there’s a sense that something has gone wrong; and you have to work out how you might otherwise approach it,” he says. “I’m unlikely to take my jacket off and roll my sleeves up to try and resolve it.”

In fact, Popham seems to agree so readily with Cornell’s preoccupation with communication that it seems difficult to imagine what would happen if a disagreement ever arose between the two.

Here is an example of their kinship (and remember Cornell’s ‘giving the partnership back to the partners’ mantra and the ‘lines of communication’ thing). “It’s critically important to me that partners are being included in the business, feel part of the business and are owners of the business,” says Popham. “They’re very busy people, so you have to find ways of making sure of finding a way that you can do it equally.”

The way Popham says all this, you cannot help but believe that he genuinely means it. But it all seems to fit very nicely with what Cornell thinks – it almost feels as if Popham is constrained from saying anything too radical.

And while radicalism may not be the job of the senior partner, Popham appears to be making sure that he stays well within the party line, lest he deviate from Cornell’s vision.

Although he is also keen to emphasise that he can be tough if he needs to be on issues such as underperforming partners. “It seems to be part of the senior partner’s job, but it’s also part of the role to help partners perform at their best,” he says. “There will be occasions over a 30 or 40-year career where people will hit a fallow period. All of us have probably had that.”

But he is eager to point out that partners in this situation will be helped, and because he likes advising people, this was one of the main reasons that he wanted the senior partner role in the first place.

Overall for Popham, Clifford Chance is now entering the next phase of its development. It is, of course, already the world’s largest law firm, but now it wants to be the premier law firm as well.

One way of achieving this end will be through bolstering certain practice areas such as M&A and capital markets through lateral hires, as well as building up the litigation-heavy West Coast practice, although a merger does not seem to be on the horizon in the near future.

No, the next few years will be spent quietly growing and ‘communicating’ with all the partners and lawyers. As long as all the lawyers fit into Cornell’s big tent, one presumes.
Stuart Popham
Global head of finance and senior partner
Clifford Chance