Macfarlanes’ balancing act

In an old picture from a 2009 photoshoot for The Lawyer, Macfarlanes senior partner Charles Martin is captured standing by the window of the firm’s Cursitor Street offices with a large road marking visible just behind him. ‘Ahead only’ it proclaims, with a massive arrow pointing northwards up Furnival Street towards Holborn.

Critics might see this as ironic more than anything else: the firm barely grew between 2008 and 2012 and was quite clearly over-exposed to the M&A and private equity market during the credit crunch, leading to a fall in the firm’s famously high PEP.

But senior partner Charles Martin seems to have a solution. In a sign that he’s realised the private equity and deals-focused model wasn’t going to work any more, the firm is shifting part of its focus to disputes (including investigations) and general advisory work and aims to achieve a rough three-way balance between these two areas and transactions. It’s a major shift for the traditional firm and could see deal lawyers doing work in other areas.

Admittedly, it’s not radical in the market: close rival Travers Smith has long had a meaty disputes practice and has seen the litigation group contribute strongly to the firm’s recent financial upturn, plus the City elite such as Slaughters know a thing or two about contentious work. And most of the rest of the magic circle is well established in disputes, despite today’s news that Freshfields arbitration star Jan Paulsson has left the firm for an unconfirmed destination.

But as commentators point out, Macfarlanes had the brand to turn its hand to most things, whether that’s a major deal or a sensitive corporate investigation. Nearly five years after becoming senior partner, Martin might just be onto something.


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