Every Clifford Chance partner seems to be a conspiracy theorist at heart, but there's been little to agitate about recently. So it's no surprising that Keith Clark's announcement that he is to join Morgan Stanley has given rise to all sorts of chit-chat around the water cooler.
It's a canny move. First, by announcing his departure a year early Clark makes it clear he is going on his own terms. Second, it's a nice bit of one-upmanship on other City senior partners. Clark's exit is rather more spectacular than – let's pick a random example – Bill Tudor John's from Allen & Overy, say.
Most importantly, it cements the firm's relationship with Morgan Stanley – although CC needs little prompting on that score, given that it already bills the bank £20m a year. Mind you, not every ex-CC partner has favoured the old shop; when Robert Palache went to Nomura he rather pointedly bonded with Allen & Overy. And Clark's translation to Morgan Stanley is unlikely to affect materially other City firms' relationships with the bank (though some of us would pay good money to see Anthony Salz schmooze him).
What Clark's departure heralds is yet another internal debate at CC on governance. The current structure was pinned together after the merger with Pünder and Rogers & Wells; it is now perceived as top-heavy with too many non-fee-earning partners. There are grumbles that the board – supposedly the 'conscience' of the firm – is just another layer of central management. Indeed, in this context, it may well be that the position of chairman/senior partner – the two titles seem interchangeable at CC – is abolished. Which would make Peter Cornell's job a lot easier, for one thing.
For all CC partners' moans about the firm's management, it does seem a lot less centralised than Freshfields. Freshfields sorts everything out behind closed doors; look at the appointment of Peter Jeffcote, for instance. A deft choice, that. Not only is he the former head of the employment group – and hence not from one of the two main political constituencies – but he is clearly “succession-neutral”, as one partner puts it. Freshfields can thus put off the leadership question for another couple of years.
The governance issues will rumble on at Clifford Chance until late next year, so there are plenty of opportunities for partners to bend Cornell's ear. But in the meantime, they can all carry on speculating on how much Clark will be earning at Morgan Stanley.