Leader: HSF disputes stars crave recognition

The best unfounded rumour of the year so far is that a 20-strong disputes team from Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) approached Latham & Watkins. How ludicrous. Everyone knows HSF partners prefer to leave in dribs and drabs.

Ted Greeno’s decision to resign for Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan at the end of last month made him the sixth litigation partner to quit since the merger. This week Lucy Burton examines what on earth is going on at HSF.

Why is the UK’s top disputes firm losing senior litigators? It was an open secret in the City he was going; this played in HSF’s favour, since when TheLawyer.com broke the news in March it was a confirmation rather than a shock. Still, his client relationships, which include Sky and Bernie Ecclestone, make his departure the hardest yet for HSF to deal with.

Yes, start the jokes now: what first made you decide to join Quinn Emanuel on a minimum of £2m a year? I don’t think these departures are necessarily about the money per se; they never are. It’s about relative contribution, which in a lockstep firm can become a particular area of contention; the litigators are still a major billing force within HSF and they’re aggrieved at having to keep underemployed corporate partners at the top of the lockstep. Add the merger to the mix and they’re asking – if we didn’t feel recognised before, are we hopeful that the new regime will recognise us now?

If those partners wanted performance-related remuneration, they’ve certainly got it at the US firms; Dechert, Latham, Quinn are hardly cosy lockstep outfits.

The model of litigation is changing. The Jackson report is not affecting the top end, but there is inevitably more emphasis on cost management. As a result, a number of litigation boutiques have been launched by BigLaw exiles who are doing rather well out of it.

Remarkably, not one Herbert Smith partner has left to set up their own firm. This suggests an extraordinary level of institutionalisation. Greeno’s move to Quinn is the nearest any Herbies departee has got to joining a boutique.

The question really is, then, whether they are finders of work or minders. If the latter, then HSF litigation head Sonya Leydecker is right to be unconcerned; clients will come for the brand and there are plenty of more junior partners to take their place. But to lose six in a year still looks like carelessness.