The Leader Column

It has been a painful period of readjustment. Osborne Clarke has found itself recast from ‘best new talent’ to whipping boy for the malaise forcing law firms across the land to contemplate that rudest of four letter words – cull. ‘Manage out’, ‘ease out’, ‘get out’… however you want to put it, the season to trim, trim, trim those fee-earners is still with us. Just look at DJ Freeman, which this week took the knife to its property, media and technology departments in its second round of redundancies (this recession), since a first stab in early 2002.
At Osborne Clarke, Leslie Perrin admits that his firm is suffering the consequences for overinvesting in corporate and technology. It is a problem that should have been confronted earlier. So what’s the damage? Twenty-three partners have left since 1 January 2002. That’s almost a quarter of the partnership. Four of those were people, insiders will readily admit, that they regret losing. Technology partner Ashley Winton, now at Pillsbury Winthrop, private equity partners Kieran O’Connor and Matthew Sillett, both at Speechly Bircham, and IT lawyer Rory Graham, who went to Baker & McKenzie, all spring to mind.
Some of the remaining 19, on the other hand, seem rather less sorely missed. Several have been eased into retirement, some have gone in-house and some were simply shown the door. Most of the casualties fell in the London corporate and technology departments. The boom years left Osborne Clarke with a lot of spring cleaning to do – it is now midway through a process of taking out 40 support staff in its efforts to stave off a profits nosedive. But incoming managing partner Simon Beswick has seen much sicker patients up close during his stint in Silicon Valley, Brobeck among them.
Fifteen new partners have also trooped through the door in the last year. Ten of them are laterals, the rest promotions. Another chink of light is a string of new clients to replace those that have sunk into relative inactivity (3i) or at worse administrative receivership (Carter Commercial Developments). BG, London Underground and engineering and construction group Costain are all new to the list in the last year, while relationships with Transco and Innogy are expanding. What’s this Leslie: is utility the new technology?
The firm is also maintaining its investment in Silicon Valley, where Richard Smerdon, who has been coaxed out of retirement, will go out to replace Beswick as resident partner. Times are hard, but Osborne Clarke’s canary in the coal mine is still singing.
Julia Cahill, deputy news editor