Cornell to focus on partner values

In the first interview since being elected, CC’s future CEO tells the lawyer his plans for the firm

In his first major interview since his election to chief executive officer (CEO), Clifford Chance‘s deputy CEO Peter Cornell has renewed his call to focus on partnership values – but not at the expense of profitability.

He says: “A partnership culture [is important] notwithstanding our size. You’ve got to preserve that and not be forced down a corporatist route. Management is there to serve.

“It’s important to become visible, to make sure the lines of communication are right. It’s doing a number of small things effectively. A lot of it is to do with communication and being inclusive.”

CEO Michael Bray’s term will finish at the end of 2002, when Cornell, who beat London managing partner Peter Charlton to the post, will take over. In the meantime, Cornell will take over from Garth Pollard as chief operating officer on 1 August.

Cornell’s espousal of partnership values has been politically astute, especially in light of the Grimaldi affair, when Clifford Chance did an off-lockstep deal with a number of the Italian partners. “He stands for a change in regime to some extent,” says one London partner. “There’s a feeling at large that we need new blood.”

But to characterise Cornell as the underdog is misleading. Charlton – closely associated with Michael Bray – was assumed to be the heir apparent, but both men were nevertheless management candidates. Indeed, Cornell disappointed many after pulling out of the last managing partner election in 1997, when he was urged to stand by many senior figures. The fact that he allowed himself to be portrayed as the outsider, despite having been in a senior management position for many more years than Charlton, hints at an acuity verging on the feline.

In fact, Cornell bristles at the role of nice guy. “I’m certainly prepared to be radical,” he protests. He was certainly no walkover when Inigo Góez-Jordana left for Allen & Overy‘s Madrid office, and when he pushed profits in Spain up to more than £1m.

Cornell acknowledges that current Rogers & Wells profits are underweight. “There are challenges there,” he says. “But [the US practice] as a platform is underestimated – even internally.”

To some extent the deputy CEO job was the only way Cornell could have realised any further ambitions within Clifford Chance, given his existing role as joint European managing partner; it is an open secret that headhunters were circling him. Cornell himself does not dismiss suggestions that he would have left if he had not won the post. He says: “I thought, if you don’t stand for it, what are you going to do? The options narrow.”