Herbert Smith’s new leadership

Lawyers, we are often told, don’t like to be managed. It seems being told what to do just doesn’t sit well with our great legal community.

Because law firms are partnerships, that’s how they should be run, as a collective. Which is all very noble until you think of what the alternatives are. Lord of the Flies-style anarchy? Imagine the fights over who gets the conch shell and which poor sod turns out to be Piggy.

The fact is there needs to be a buck-stopping chief or two, which is why Herbert Smith’s current management rejig is interesting. The firm is just about to embark on its senior partner election and is revisiting the issue of whether or not to bring back the role of managing partner.

Back in 1993, Herbert Smith scrapped the post when Andrew Congreve retired. But seven years later, Herbert Smith, under the leadership of new senior partner Richard Bond, seriously considered bringing it back.

Now, in a case of serious déjà vu, the issue is back on the table again. Bond possibly could have gotten rid of the structure implemented by his predecessor Edward Walker-Arnott, which included the decidedly corporate-sounding executive partner and practice partner, but chose not to.

It will be up to whoever wins the senior partner role to make a change. But why change? And why now?

Bringing back the managing partner moniker sets a decidedly traditional tone, a move that Clifford Chance’s managing partner Peter Cornell made shortly after being elected to the leadership in 2001. Cornell’s decision signalled a new era for the firm.

Is traditionalism Herbert Smith’s aim? Possibly not. The point is that ‘executive partner’ and ‘practice partner’ sound more like administrative roles, even if that’s not what the positions encompass. The managing partner role carries greater connotations of leadership, especially if its reintroduction means that senior partner responsibilities will be split in two.

So perhaps leadership is what it’s all about. Back in 2000 Herbert Smith was frankly whipping the City’s leading corporate players’ backsides on a succession of top-notch mandates. A lot of firms have fallen prey to the dearth of meaty corporate deals in recent months, but for Herbert Smith, the area has been hit especially hard. Will a strong managing partner come in there and shake things up?
Herbert Smith is jam-packed with talent. It would be great to see it stepping on its rivals’ toes once again.