The Lawyer’s European managing partner of the year: How to make tough choices

Gomez-Acebo & Pombo managing partner Manuel Martín has had to lead his firm through the hardest of times, and make the toughest decisions in the process.

Nobody told Gómez-Acebo & Pombo managing partner Manuel Martín they were entering him for European Managing Partner of the Year at The Lawyer European Awards this year, until the entry deadline had closed.

Manuel Martin gomez-acebo
Manuel Martin

And Martín was pretty convinced he had no chance of winning – after all, the last few years have seen Spain’s fourth-largest firm struggle in a punishingly tough economic climate. Revenues have fallen to €60.7m, from a 2010 high of €68.9m (2 February 2011), and Martín has overseen a fairly aggressive cost-cutting programme, pushing headcount down year-on-year.

But then Gómez-Acebo’s performance has only a little to do with the firm, and quite a lot to do with the bigger picture.

“It has to do with the Spanish economy,” Martín points out, speaking after the announcement of the firm’s results and his European Awards success.

Although larger rivals have managed to secure some growth in the last year, notably Cuatrecasas Gonçalves Pereira, it is often harder for mid-sized firms in times of crisis. What distinguished Martín, for our judging panel, was his willingness to face up to this and take the hard decisions to make changes.

Notably, the firm has moved away from commoditised work and is putting far more emphasis on picking its clients.

“We have very strict criteria on selecting the type of work and clients we take,” he says.

Martín admits that this decision may, in the short term, have cost Gómez-Acebo some revenue. Longer-term, however, he is adamant it is the right move, although “we still have some way to go. We’re on the right path and we have to continue walking in the same direction.”

As a result of moving toward ‘quality’ clients, the value of an average Gómez-Acebo file is rising. The firm is also working hard at its realisation rates, achieving a 17 per cent increase in fee collection last year. All this helped revenue to stabilise somewhat, with a drop of less than 0.9 per cent between 2012 and 2013 (19 February 2014).

Martín says comparing the two years is difficult, as corporate and capital markets outperformed other practice areas last year – whereas tax and employment stood out in 2012.

“The final picture is more or less stable,” he points out. “What’s behind the numbers is different.”

The Madrid office, he adds, also had a particularly strong year in 2013.  

“[2014 should be] a bit better, but I don’t expect miracles,” he says. “We may get a better margin because we’re working quite hard on costs.”

Heading forwards, Martín thinks the outlook is a little better, and he is sure the firm is in a stronger place. A particular characteristic of Gómez-Acebo is the youth of its management – several office and department heads are still in their 30s, which means that there is plenty of young blood gaining management experience and able, eventually, to pick up from Martín and other more senior managers. His boots, though, will be big ones to fill.