Is Bonelli’s lock-in a solution to the European succession planning question?

Partner lock-ins normally come at a time of turmoil or change for a firm – following a merger (27 January 2014), or to stem a slew of partner departures (4 April 2005).

Bonelli Erede Pappalardo’s three-year ‘loyalty’ lock-in (8 April 2014) is slightly different. Yes, the firm has lost a couple of partners recently, but two out of a partnership of almost 60 does not amount to a flood. And it is 15 years since the three-way merger which formed the firm.

Instead, Bonelli wants to make sure that all its partners are fully supportive of its radical strategy overhaul, kicked off last year when new managing partners Stefano Simontacchi and Marcello Giustiniani took over from Alberto Saravalle (22 May 2013).

The lock-in, and the strategy rethink, is all part of Bonelli’s attempts to turn itself into a more institutional firm. It is not alone in Europe in trying to do this – most of the larger independents have realised that their survival is closely linked to making sure that client relationships are with the firm, not an individual, and that new generations feel engaged and valued.

In Italy, Gianni Origoni Grippo Cappelli & Partners found it had to accelerate its succession planning due to two key events – its break from ally Linklaters in 2004 (15 March 2004), and the 2007 split which saw over 100 lawyers led by managing partner Giovanni Nardulli to set up Legance (5 November 2007).

As a result, Gianni Origoni institutionalised earlier than many of its local rivals, although senior partner Francesco Gianni has previously said that the firm wanted to be an institution from day one (17 July 2011).

Elsewhere, several firms – notably Spanish firms Garrigues (31 October 2011), Cuatrecasas Gonçalves Pereira (26 March 2012) and Gómez-Acebo & Pombo (2 February 2011) have rejigged their partnership structures to try and engage the younger generation more.

Gómez-Acebo (6 March 2014) has been pretty successful at this. It has several office or practice area managing partners who are not yet 40, gaining management experience early in the expectation of leading the firm in the future.

In Portuguese firm Vieira de Almeida name partner João Vieira de Almeida is managing partner at present. But the firm is already preparing for the end of his office in a couple of years, with plans in place to ensure a smooth succession to the next managing partner.

Interestingly, several firms in Europe have chosen to move to an all-equity, or largely equity, partnership structure as part of their efforts to engage younger lawyers. A full third of the top 100 European firms by revenue are all-equity partnerships, a far greater proportion than most Anglo-Saxon-led international firms.

Nevertheless, one has to question how effective European succession planning has been. In the past couple of years a number of senior associates or partners from independent firms have decided to go their own way and launch or join boutiques, with departures coming from Darrois Villey Maillot Brochier (4 February 2013), Gide Loyrette Nouel (8 March 2013) and Stibbe (9 April 2014) among others.

Bonelli’s lock-in prevents that happening to the Italian outfit – at least for the moment. But it will be interesting to see how different the firm is in 2017 when the lock-in comes to an end, and how loyal its partners really are.