Through most of the decade, Bill Tudor John has represented the public face of Allen & Overy. But in what sources claim is an extraordinary putsch, Tudor John was ousted last week in favour of A&O's youngest-ever senior partner.
A&O is glossing over the loss of Tudor John, who at the age of 55 has chosen to leave the firm and take early retirement. And it point-blank refuses to discuss the circumstances surrounding his decision to go.
But the real story behind his departure is beginning to emerge and what it shows, say sources, is A&O's hard-headedness in jettisoning the brilliant lawyer – who did so much to ensure the firm's prominence in the 1990s – in favour of a younger successor.
The election of Guy Beringer, aged 44, as A&O's senior partner shocked not only the industry but also Tudor John, according to sources. Insiders say Tudor John, the firm's uncontested senior partner for five years, expected to run for the position unchallenged.
But three contestants – head of corporate law Beringer, banking partner Philip Wood, and corporate finance partner Richard Cranfield – entered the arena at the last minute.
One source says: “It was a real surprise. Everyone thought that Bill Tudor John was going to get it and he was very public about doing another term. It is amazing.”
It is thought that a change in mood at the firm prompted the election of a new senior partner. One legal insider says: “In A&O there has been for some time a small group who have been unhappy with Bill Tudor John because he was so forthright. I think Tudor John has done a fantastic job of moving the firm forward but he has done a Maggie [Thatcher]. At first he listened, and then he said: 'I am just going to do it.' I think he has become unpopular with some. There has been dissension about management and communication has not been that great.”
The first sign of change at A&O may have been the overhauling of the firm's partnership deed in the summer – the first time in 50 years. It introduced greater democracy and a more corporate style of governance to the firm.
The legal insider contrasts A&O's traditional approach to that at another magic circle firm.
“Freshfields partners have an understanding of what is going on before it happens. [This election] will probably lead to a change in style rather than direction. I don't think it will run from Thatcher to John Major but there will be more consultation. There will not be a shift in strategy, but there will be in attitude,” he says.
But another source adds that, after five years, Tudor John may need a break from the role of senior partner anyway. “Tudor John is probably worn out. He has aged a lot in that job. People may have thought [another term] would be too much for him,” he says.
Tudor John's 30-year career at A&O has been glittering. Before becoming managing partner in 1992 he was head of banking. He was elected to senior partner in 1994.
A&O doubled in size under Tudor John. The firm has added seven new offices, including Madrid, Amsterdam and Luxembourg, since he took over, and turnover has more than doubled. In May 2000 he is stepping down and retiring from the firm.
John Rink, the re-elected managing partner, says: “We now have a new term to build on what he created.”
Beringer vows that when he is senior partner he will not change the firm's overall direction. He says: “We have had a good period under Bill. I don't think the issue is one of changes.”
Beringer qualified at A&O in 1980 and became a partner in 1985. He has managed the corporate department for five years.
David Temporal, head of the London office of US management consultants Altman Weil, agrees. He says: “Tudor John took the firm a good distance. A&O was late into Hong Kong in 1988 but Tudor John helped to build that into one of the budding practices.
“He helped to introduce a vision to the firm. He was tough and charismatic and took the firm forward. But it is probably right that A&O moves to the next generation. The competitive environment is now different. They need to build their firm globally.”
He adds that a younger, more dynamic man may be better suited to doing that, and he says Freshfields appeared to have had a similar idea when it appointed Anthony Salz as senior partner in 1996 when he was 46.
Jonathan Brenner, director of ZMB recruitment consultants, says: “Making Beringer a senior partner at such a young age is inspired. He is the same age as managing partners in many other firms. A&O keeps telling us they are forward-thinking and this proves it.”
And lawyers in the firm have expressed their confidence in the new appointment. One partner says: “Beringer is only 44. To be elected at his age shows the respect people have for him.”
Beringer will take A&O forward into the 21st century and with his appointment come signs that changes in the character of A&O, always thought of as one of the most traditional and conservative firms, are also taking place.
The partners have voted for Beringer and they have opted for youthfulness. It is a message other City firms will not be able to ignore.