Like all US presidents before him, President Barack Obama was subject to a deluge of scrutiny as politicians and pundits alike tried to assess his first 100 days in office three years ago. It is not a purely Rooseveltian idea: les cent jours concept originated in France during Napoleonic times.
Across the water, we Brits tend to be less daring in our assessments. But when it comes to the role of senior partner, which can be an amorphous position at the best of times, there is plenty to consider after their first chunky period of time in the job.
“What’s in a name?”, was the all-important question posed by Shakespeare’s most famous heroine. ’Senior partner’ certainly was not what Juliet was thinking about at the time. Equally, when thinking about a law firm it may not be the first title that springs to mind. Indeed, not all firms have one: earlier this year Field Fisher Waterhouse scrapped its senior partner role as part of a wider governance overhaul.
Still, the mere mention of the title raises the question of its purpose and what the senior partner role entails.
Unlike his high-profile predecessors Stuart Popham and Keith Clark, Clifford Chance senior partner Malcolm Sweeting did not work his way up through management, but came “straight from the coalface”, as he terms it. This gave him a different approach, he says.
“Coming in from outside management, I came at it completely fresh and had no preconceptions of what the role was or how it was to be played,” says Sweeting.
“When as a partner you’ve been immersed in a particular industry sector and market, your outlook is relatively limited, albeit international, so you’re not necessarily as informed. So going straight from the coalface to senior partner was a real learning experience for me.”
Sweeting was elected in November 2010 and started his four-year term the following January. His bid for the senior partner role was not without competition, however.
When Popham announced he was standing down at the end of 2010, there was a steady influx of interest for the spot, with Sweeting seeing off the challenge of tax partner Jonathan Elman and German corporate finance partner Daniela Weber-Rey.
Although earlier favourites touted for the job included Paris managing partner Yves Wehrli, global head of finance Mark Campbell and litigation chief Jeremy Sandelson, in the end none of these lawyers decided to put themselves forward for the position.
For Wehrli, who opted to continue managing the firm’s Paris office rather than go for senior partner, Sweeting was an apt choice.
“Malcolm’s been at the firm for a long time and came from finance, a big practice group that’s one of the mainstream business practices at the firm,” he points out. “So he’s very well-known and very exposed to the international side of the firm.”
Sweeting was always a strong advocate for Clifford Chance’s international expansion strategy, having been one of the main partners that pushed to launch an outpost in Turkey in April 2011.
“Malcolm has visions of certain policies and promotes ideas more than Popham or other senior partners have done and Istanbul really was Malcolm’s baby,” says Clifford Chance partner James Johnson.
Race to the top
This was by no means the most highly contested senior partner race of 2011. That title fell to Simmons & Simmons. There were originally five other candidates, apart from the eventual winner, understood to be in the running for the coveted role: litigation partner Philip Vaughan; corporate partner Charles Mayo; corporate partner and Paris head Thierry Gontard; former managing partner Mark Dawkins; and energy partner Patrick Wallace.
After Gontard, Mayo, Vaughan and Wallace were eliminated in the first round of voting, it became a two-horse race between litigation head Colin Passmore and Dawkins. Although the latter was widely considered the continuity candidate, the attraction of Passmore as a change of direction for the firm saw him pip Dawkins to the final post. He officially took up the role in August 2011.
As Simmons managing partner Jeremy Hoyland stresses, Passmore’s appointment has been a huge – and necessary – breath of fresh air.
“Colin brings a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm to the role and is massively positive,” he says. “Lawyers can be cynical by nature, and after the bad years times were hard and market conditions were tough. We needed someone fresh, different, energetic and positive.”
Like many firms, Simmons had another difficult year in 2011, seeing both turnover and average profit per equity partner (PEP) dip for a second year running, according to 2010-11 year-end figures. Perhaps, then, it was Passmore’s no-nonsense approach that made him the best man for the role and is what set him apart from the other candidates. Hoyland certainly thinks so.
“Colin is very unusual in many ways,” he claims. “Some of the others standing for the election were very high-performing partners but were more of the cautious statesman type. Colin is a more dynamic individual and focuses on the positives. He looks at areas to push forward and how to make the best of things.”
While comparing him to Obama might be over-egging the pudd-ing, Passmore’s similarly fearless approach and willingness to make decisions has so far proved popular.
“I’m a firm believer that if something isn’t working, you shouldn’t let problems fester. You should do something about it,” he says.
Passmore cites the example earlier this year when Simmons announced it was cutting the number of fee-earners and support staff in Abu Dhabi and Dubai due to market turbulence. With cuts such as this, you could be forgiven for thinking that such news would worry partners, but Hoyland stresses that Passmore has what it takes to keep partners’ spirits high.
“He’s a real force of nature and this really resonates with the partners,” Hoyland adds.
As for the question of what being a senior partner means, every one has their own view (see box, page 25). For Sweeting, his role has two distinct areas of focus.
“There’s the internal side, which involves making sure the partners benefit from the partnership structure and the firm’s ethos,” he says. “Then there’s the external and client-facing role, which involves focusing on clients, revenue generation and specific opportunities to win business for the firm.”
“I see the main difference between senior and managing partner as the difference between chairman and chief executive,” says Passmore. “Loosely speaking, the senior partner handles the external role and the managing partner handles the internal role.”
But he admits: “In practice, however, it isn’t quite as simple as that.”
Passmore sees much of his role as relating to setting the tone and contributing to the culture of the firm.
‘Culture’ is a word bandied around by most senior partners, but one source is more sceptical about how well you can assess the senior partner’s contribution to a firm’s culture.
“To say the senior partner contributes to the firm’s culture is an oversimplified distinction,” says one partner. “I think both the managing partner and the senior partner do that and it very much depends on the strength and personalities of the individuals concerned.”
One way that Passmore has tried to set the tone at Simmons is through encouraging associates to get more involved in the firm’s business development work.
“Associates should get involved in business development as it’s so important that they know how to build relationships with clients,” he argues.
This issue arose during the firmwide strategic review that Passmore helped lead last summer.
As part of their ambassadorial role, senior partners tend to spend a considerable amount of time making rounds of their firms’ UK and international offices and meeting partners and clients. Fresh from a trip to Moscow, Sweeting is no exception and is often in one corner of the world or another. With more than 30 offices across the globe to attend to, it is not surprising that he spends much of his time on a plane.
“I have to travel so much as I need to make sure that all of my partners are on the same page, adhering to the same strategy,” Sweeting says. “So I have no choice but to get around all the offices and tell them what’s happening.”
While Popham visibly embraced the jet-setting lifestyle, even forming part of Gordon Brown’s and latterly David Cameron’s delegation trips to China and India respectively, Sweeting admits that travel is probably the aspect of the role he enjoys the least.
“Senior partners do a lot and have to go around their network and talk to people and listen to what they’ve got to say,” he says. “On a practical level though, I would say the worst bit for me is travel. I’ve got a young family, so all the travelling, not just to the firm’s offices but all over, can be physically exhausting and quite disruptive to family life. But you can’t be a senior partner of a global firm and not travel.”
One of the most challenging aspects of Passmore’s role is navigating the fine line between befriending partners and supervising them.
“One of the most difficult things is balancing being a friend and being a leader,” he admits. “There’s the constant battle to get partners to be open about what they think.”
This is one of the things that makes the senior partner role unique. As Hoyland admits, he wouldn’t be so sure he could do it if their roles were reversed.
“I’m not sure how I would manage to play that role, as it’s two roles in one really: mentoring and managing, and doing both isn’t easy,” he notes.
Keeping it real
Although Sweeting and Passmore both came straight from frontline fee-earning positions, is it important for senior partners to keep up client-facing work? Absolutely, says Clyde & Co managing partner Michael Payton. “Senior partners speak as much more of an authority if they’re at the coalface,” he insists.
For Sweeting, striking the right balance between maintaining client relationships and fulfilling senior partner responsibilities can be hard.
“The reality is that I can’t do as much client work as I’d like,” he admits. “I’d like to do more like 25 to 30 per cent, but I probably spend something like 15 to 20 per cent with clients.”
Sweeting continues to act as one of Clifford Chance’s primary client relationship partners for RBS. As for the benefits of continuing the client-facing side of his role, Sweeting believes it definitely helps keep him grounded.
“Working with clients helps you keep your feet firmly on the ground,” he says. “If you still have to turn round documents late at night, then this allows you to stay involved. Otherwise you can become quite remote from partners and the pressures placed on them.”
When Passmore was appointed senior partner, he was keen not to lose the key clients with whom he had built up relationships over the years.
“I do 20 per cent chargeable work and still get a lot of unsolicited work. Barclays is still one of my main clients; I certainly didn’t want to let them go,” he enthuses.
Barclays has been a longstanding client for Passmore, who represented it in the bank charges litigation in 2009, when six high-street banks and a building society successfully fended off an attempt by the OFT to investigate overdraft fees.
As for the importance of keeping up the client relationships, Passmore stresses that is part-and-parcel of his role.
“You can’t credibly tell partners what to do unless you spend some time at the coalface,” he argues. “I couldn’t go and speak to a client without having given advice recently. They’ll always ask you who you last advised.”
“A senior partner’s role is very much about being client-facing,” agrees Simmons’ Gontard. “Senior partners shouldn’t be out of the market.”
Linklaters senior partner Robert Elliott also still maintains strong working relationships with clients such as RBS since he was brought in as senior partner in October 2011, and believes that client work is a must for any senior partner.
“It’s an absolutely vital part of the job,” he says. “When I stood for election, the feedback from partners was that they wanted the senior partner to have a strong client-facing role.”
Having stepped off the Eurostar little under two hours before our interview, following an evening in Paris for a client reception, Elliott clearly knows the demands of continuing to cater to clients’ needs and making himself available in the office for partners.
“It’s about both retaining and attracting clients and you can’t possibly know clients’ business if you don’t pay attention to it,” he stresses.
With all this globe-trotting then, how does Sweeting assess his contribution so far?
“There are some clearly tangible elements, in terms of clients, time sheets, the annual review,” notes Sweeting.
For other aspects, it is not quite so black and white. Clifford Chance London managing partner David Bickerton sees Sweeting’s focus on clients and revenue generation as key to his contribution.
“Malcolm is well-connected already, but it’s about making sure that these connections are producing revenue for the firm – and they are,” he says.
Although Sweeting himself told The Lawyer back in 2010 that Clifford Chance isn’t “solely driven by numbers”, it must have been to both his and managing partner David Childs’ delight when the firm posted a 2 per cent increase in global revenue and an 8 per cent increase in average PEP to £1m for the 2010-11 financial year.
While obviously not all down to Sweeting, it was a significant result for Clifford Chance, making it the first time its PEP had broken the million-pound mark since 2007-08.
Sweeting himself feels it is only right that his contribution is assessed. Each year two partners at the firm are delegated to seek feedback on Sweeting and report it back to him.
“It’s good that I’m subject to the same discipline as other partners,” he says. “I think, like partners, a senior partner’s contribution should be measured and appraised and that I should be providing genuine value.”
Maximising partner performance is a primary challenge for any senior partner, let alone in the current economic climate.
Although at the end of last year Clifford Chance told The Lawyer that it had no plans to cull its partnership, a spokesperson did confirm that performance management was one reason why partners could leave.
For Elliott, whose firm is set to shed as many as 70 partners in its latest restructuring, the opportunity to improve his partnership’s performance was a primary incentive for taking up the role.
“When I put myself forward for the senior partner role, I wanted to do it and thought I could help improve Linklaters,” he says. “I hate complacency and I saw that the firm had a lot of potential and the challenge was to unlock that potential.”
Slaughter and May senior partner Chris Saul also believes that celebrating both partners’ and firms’ achievements can help maximise partner performance.
“It’s important to celebrate achievements, whether it be winning clients, closing a deal or welcoming new partners to the partnership,” he says. “In a lockstep partnership such as ours, the challenge is to figure out what makes partners strive to do more.”
“The acid test is whether you command the trust and confidence of the partnership,” argues Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley. “We have a 360-degree appraisal system that assesses the contribution of the senior partner across five dimensions, including strategic progress, external reputation and profile of the firm, partner engagement and so on. But the ultimate measure has to be the performance of the business.”
One of Passmore’s tasks so far has been to create “a high performance culture in response to the firm’s financial results”. As part of this, he has come up with several initiatives to make the Simmons partnership feel more integrated, including arranging a high-profile external speaker at a London meeting to entice overseas partners to attend.
Passmore’s first few months as senior partner have not been all rosy, with around 20 partners ditching the firm for pastures new.
Although less than a year into his term, Passmore obviously has not been put off. As Hoyland affirms, Passmore tends to focus on the positives and lists client successes and partners joining the firm – alluding to the seven lateral hires from Berwin Leighton Paisner over the past year – as the best things about his role.
Although Passmore was initially elected for a four-year term, a constitutional quirk means there is an election after two years in the role. The certainty that he will be standing again next year suggests his year in the job has left him wanting more, whatever ’more’ might mean.
Senior partners: what do they do all day?
There is a clear three-pronged approach to the senior partner role, according to Clyde & Co senior partner Michael Payton.
“It varies from firm to firm, but for me the senior partner is in charge of the firm’s overall strategy and vision,” says the City’s longest-serving senior partner, in situ since 1984. “It involves an ambassadorial role with clients and they’re also the ultimate point of resolution for irresolvable issues.”
As for the home front, Slaughter and May senior partner Chris Saul sees the relationship with his partners as a key part of his role.
“A large part of my role is being the pater familias, acting as a willing ear and someone that partners feel they can approach,” he comments.
As a result, Saul ensures that each partner gets “an hour on the couch” with him once a year to talk about their ambitions and concerns. As he points out, it is important to make partners feel like they are being listened to and not simply being managed.
“Partners, however subliminally, tend to recoil at the mention of a manager, but we’re not there to manage or direct – that’s why the word ’manager’ doesn’t
appear in any title at the firm,” Saul explains.
Consequently, the top three managerial posts at Slaughters are all devoid of the ’m’ word, with Graham White as the firm’s executive partner, Saul as senior partner and Paul Olney as the unusually titled practice partner.
Former Stephenson Harwood senior partner Andrew Sutch says that much of his role was to provide a willing ear to the managing partner as well as the partnership.
“As senior partner you’re a custodian of the firm’s ethos and it’s important that the senior partner embodies what the firm is all about,” he says. “My role was more supervisory and about being a sounding board for the managing partner, so I know what’s going on without being seen to be visible. The important thing is to support one’s management, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them.
“It can be a difficult and lonely job, and it’s important to get to know partners well and get to know their complaints.”
Saul is a firm believer that working directly with clients is a key part of his role.
“I spend up to 10 per cent of my time working directly with clients. It gives you credibility and is of totemic importance,” he notes.
For Sutch the split was more 70 per cent of his time dedicated to senior partner responsibilities and 30 per cent to clients.
“My work was more non-client than client-based, but I count myself lucky enough to do enough client work to keep me sane,” he laughs.
Sutch handed over the senior partner reins to Roland Foord on 1 May after holding the position for 10 years.
For other senior partners, sometimes it is necessary to make a concerted move to get even more involved with clients. Olswang senior partner Mark Devereux typically spends 40 per cent of his time on his own practice, having jumped at the chance to take back the helm of the firm’s media group in 2011.
“In May last year I was invited to take back the role of leading the media work at the firm,” Devereux says. “It’s a very full-on and hands-on role in terms of setting the direction of the practice, but the timing was right and we were looking to reorganise things.”
Unlike Clifford Chance’s Malcolm Sweeting, Simmons & Simmons’ Colin Passmore or Linklaters’ Robert Elliott, Mark Devereux is an old hand at the senior partner role, having occupied the post at Olswang for the past 14 years. One of the main changes during his tenure has been the amount of pressure placed on lawyers.
“The pressure on lawyers nowadays is phenomenal,” he says. “The importation of blame culture from the US has created a culture of fear in the legal profession of dropping the ball.”
These pressures have made it all the more important for him as a senior partner to be engaged with clients, notes Devereux.
“Working with clients helps you understand what the partners at the firm are doing and the stresses and strains that they’re under. In turn, this helps you understand much better what’s required of a practitioner nowadays.”
The “internationalisation of the City profession”, as Clyde & Co’s Michael Payton puts it, has had the most impact on his role as senior partner since he was appointed back in 1984.
“Until maybe two years ago, I split my time 50:50 between my responsibilities as senior partner and private practice. It’s now more like 75:25,” he says. “This is mainly down to our growth as a firm, which means there’s a lot more to cope with. “
Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley, who was appointed to the post in 2008, agrees that internationalisation has had a major impact on his role.
“We’ve added 13 offices in the past three years; I spend around half my time travelling. It’s also become more strategic. We live in a tougher post-Lehman world, which demands more timely and more deliberate business choices.”
Will the Legal Services Act (LSA) have any impact on the old-style partnership structure and with it the senior partner role?
“In our part of the market, I don’t see any major impact in the near future on our business model or structure from the LSA,” says Allen & Overy (A&O) senior partner David Morley. “Having said that, I don’t rule out the possibility of some of the new business models that are evolving in other segments of the market, and the introduction of external capital, having an impact on us over time.”
Clifford Chance senior partner Malcolm Sweeting agrees that there are longer term implications for law firms such as his.
“We can see the impact on the profession more generally,” he adds. “For example, we have a global shared services centre in India, whereas other firms such as A&O have a support services centre in Belfast.”
According to Olswang senior partner Mark Devereux, the LSA will have a strong impact culturally on the market.
“We’ll inevitably move more towards a more corporate culture and there’ll be more acquisitions and consolidation,” he predicts. “Partnerships are good but I don’t think they’re necessarily the best way to do things.”
Morley, though, believes that partnership could teach corporates a thing or two.
“Partnership is often considered an old-fashioned structure, but the opposite is true if the aim is to build a cohesive, collaborative group of successful, ambitious, motivated, professionally autonomous people. There’s a lot the corporate world could learn from the checks and balances built into the system of governance of many modern partnerships.”