This could be the most explosive issue Clifford Chance has had to deal with yet, and its US partners are terrified. The major topic – the only topic – at the New York office right now is the impending restructuring of the equity.
“There’s a huge element of paranoia in New York,” says one exasperated UK partner. But who can blame them? The Clifford Chance management has apparently been oblivious to the rising tide of panic in the US. When rumours, however baseless, are circulating that up to 25 partners are for the chop – either being managed out via retirement or “de-equitising” – you might have thought that the management would move to quell any unrest. “We haven’t had any official communication,” complains one New York partner. And when those rumours start circulating round Aldersgate Street, you might have thought a Keith Clark special – one of those stern firmwide emails – would have been on the cards.
The other Wall Street firms are for the most part too preoccupied with the M&A downturn in the US to make too much capital out of Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, whose relatively poor performance over the past year can be attributed to a steep rise in costs of some 25 per cent – although a woefully weak corporate performance has not helped matters.
The Lawyer understands that the US management’s thoughts on the matter – which are in no way finalised – have been circulated to only a handful of people. It was not on the agenda at last week’s board meeting in London, which was primarily concerned with setting the budget.
The facts of the restructuring are these: the entire exercise is being led from New York, where it is Jim Benedict’s happy mission to take the New York partners through this equity restructuring, which was prefigured in the merger document. (Quite how Benedict manages to combine being global litigation head, US managing partner and major fee-earner is, by the way, one of those latter-day miracles.) He has to integrate the legacy Rogers & Wells share-out with the Clifford Chance lockstep. Quite how horrific a prospect this is can be judged by the contrasting equity spreads. At Clifford Chance, the top partners earn two and a half times as much as the bottom equity partners. At Rogers & Wells, the ratio is something like ten to one. If Benedict can manage that without blood on the carpet, he deserves beatification. But the management’s passivity in the face of the panic in New York is extraordinary. A new listening culture at Clifford Chance? You decide.