Gideon Moore was appointed to the role of global boss of Linklaters – currently a £1.3bn firm – on a mandate of constant review. On lockstep, business services, US and Asia expansion, his attitude is resolute: let’s check that what we’re doing still makes sense.
The approach almost sounds like a breath of fresh air for Linklaters. The firm has been much more reluctant than its magic circle rivals to flex its lockstep, introduce superpoints, or take any risky decisions in terms of foreign mergers.
“I told the partners what we ought to be doing on a regular basis is questioning if what we’re doing is still current and fit for purpose,” Moore says of his original pitch to the firm last summer. And it’s a phrase he repeats again and again during his interview with The Lawyer, though always with the caveat: “If it is, then that’s great, we won’t change it.”
But as Moore passes the first 100 days of his four-year term, the partnership has made it clear that action, not just review, will define his success as managing partner. Drafting in Deloitte to carry out a review of the firm’s colossal 2,000-staff business services function is all well and good, but only if it leads to greater efficiencies on both costs and processes in the long run.
“There are two ways of running a law firm like Linklaters,” says one senior insider. “Either you have a very firm idea of what you want to do and then you go implement it, or you take the attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, get your feet under the desk and solve problems as they come along.”
Which camp Moore falls into has yet to be decided, though it appears so far his style is closer to the latter.
But Linklaters, like the rest of the UK full-service legal market, is not short of ‘big picture’ problems that Moore could set out to overcome, and with increasing need for more tangible strength in Asia and the US, it remains to be seen whether merely a steady hand on the tiller will be enough.
“Will he be a successful managing partner? It’s too early to tell,” says a source. “Of course, Gideon could just be biding his time until he has a new senior partner. It’s probably sensible to not do anything too radical until then.”
Path to leadership
Moore was appointed to the top job in unusual circumstances. Former managing partner Simon Davies stepped down a year early last May, prompting the partnership board to hastily come up with a list of names for his replacement. Linklaters will not elect its next senior partner until later this month, leaving Moore effectively running the firm solo for the first four months of his term after current senior partner Robert Elliott ruled himself out of the race early on.
Davies’s almost eight-year reign casts an interesting shadow on Moore’s first term. “Running Linklaters after Simon could be quite easy,” comments a source. “All he needs to do to keep the partnership on side is not sack large swathes of lawyers”.
Now it is over, Davies’s term has come to be defined by two severe partnership restructurings that saw 35 of the firm’s 200 partners leaving the firm. Looking back, the cuts arguably helped keep Linklaters’ profitability up, but the general consensus remains that Davies irreparably damaged collegiacy at the firm and his personal standing in the firm never recovered.
Davies famously failed to win enough votes to be re-elected to the position of global managing partner in 2012, despite being the only candidate standing. The vote was recalled at an all-partner meeting and Davies was eventually secured in the top job, but the incident went down in magic circle history and was seen as a major crisis in the firm’s leadership.
Desperate not to see a repeat of the 2012 incident, running a coherent election process last year was crucial to Linklaters’ future stability and the mandate of its new boss. But Moore’s ascension was rockier than originally thought, thanks to disputes boss Michael Bennett withdrawing from the race to be managing partner in the eleventh hour.
“Michael dropping out meant it was a choice between Gideon and Marc Harvey,” says an insider. “The partners were never going to go for Harvey because he’s seen as too similar to Simon Davies.”
Being Asia managing partner – a role he took over from Davies – counted against Harvey, and has led some to question whether Linklaters really got the right man for the job. “The partners didn’t really have a lot to choose from,” says a source.
“There’s no doubt that Gideon is a business-focused partner who has been successful in London and is outwardly disciplined,” another source adds, “but he needs to work on bringing a balance of charisma back to the firm. Linklaters needs charismatic partners.
“No-one ever saw Simon but he wasn’t afraid of making big decisions,” the source continues. “Gideon needs to make sure the partners see him as a momentum-builder and charismatic if he’s to escape the ‘steady Eddie’ image”.
Moore’s own career could prove key here. Unlike Simon Davies and Tony Angel before him, Moore did not grow up at Linklaters. He joined as a partner from Clifford Chance in 1999, although he originally trained as a barrister. He climbed through the ranks at Linklaters, becoming global head of banking in 2011 when former head Elliott became senior partner.
Moore has taken a lot of credit for the strength of the approximately 37-partner banking practice, one of Linklaters’ most profitable groups, making up almost 20 per cent of the firm’s income. The team, which also spans leveraged finance, restructuring, insolvency, high yield and asset and real estate finance, lost a string of leading partners under Elliott, such as Stephen Lucas and Chris Howard, and was trimmed in a restructure under Tony Angel, but has seemed more stable under Moore.
Not everyone agrees. “There was rumoured to be up to 10 CVs on the market from Linklaters’ banking practice late last year, though they’re all sitting tight now Gideon is boss,” claims a source.
As is traditional at Linklaters, Moore has stepped out of fee-earning completely now he is managing partner. “I’d be deluding myself if I thought I could still do the day job and devote enough time and energy to doing this role,” Moore says, while admitting he misses it.
But some have suggested Moore was always more comfortable handling strategy and partners than client work.
“Gideon is a consensus builder,” says a former partner. “He tends to make a decision based on what is the most popular. In a partnership that can be a strength.”
Neither Angel nor Davies cared “what anyone thought”, the partner adds.
“They both said ‘this is what we need to do’ and if you disagree, well … It was a bloodbath on multiple occasions. They were prepared to make unpopular decisions if they were right for the business.”
Comparisons have also been drawn to Clifford Chance’s current management.
“Matthew [Layton] and Malcolm [Sweeting] are getting some big changes through,” says a source of Clifford Chance’s managing and senior partners. “Because of who they are and their past strength fee-earning they can pretty much do what they like.”
Indeed in the last 18 months Clifford Chance has introduced superpoints to attract star partners and effectively dismantled its lockstep. It has also restructured its German operations, scrapped leadership elections, and sanctioned a major change in its business services delivery by rehousing staff in a second Canary Wharf office.
“They could only have got all that through with Matthew being steely and Malcolm being the soft guy,” the source continues. “Maybe that’s what Linklaters needs – the new senior partner doing the PR and Gideon doing the hard stuff.”
In line with his “review everything” mindset, Moore is expecting a team from Deloitte to return to him in mid-May on plans for the firm’s business services offering.
The firm was relatively ahead of the game in opening its Colchester office to house back office and support functions in 2001. It has also been rapidly growing its services centre in Warsaw since last year, with both offices now housing around 200 staff each.
Those 400 staff are dwarfed by Linklaters’ global back office staff headcount across its various offices, which is close to 1,500. The number seems excessive. Freshfields recently relocated its entire back office function to Manchester, from where it will also offer legal services to partners across its global offices. The final headcount target is around 700 all in.
“I’d like to find out whether what we’ve got is sufficient for purpose and whether it allows us to deliver quality of service to our clients,” says Moore. “If we were to look at opening a centre anywhere else, that would be the first question.
“Whether we would go the Freshfields route of a satellite outside of London with paralegals, I would never say never. But it’s not on the list of things I’m proposing we do now,” he adds.
Innovation and China are next on Moore’s list of achievable aims.
“We’re setting up an innovation group run by three partners and two directors,” he says. “I’ve always felt that Linklaters is a very innovative firm but externally people haven’t picked up on that,” he adds, citing the Warsaw financial processing office and Linklaters’ ongoing ventures into artificial intelligence.
In China, the firm recently revealed it would spin off its current PRC lawyers in favour of them launching an independent firm with the view to enter into a joint-venture with Linklaters three or four years down the line. The move marks the culmination Operation Trident, which Linklaters launched two years ago to find a merger partner in China. Or as Moore says: “Job done”.
The planned JV has been seen as a smart although late move to revitalise its dwindling corporate practice and partner headcount in the region – a local trend affecting most of the magic circle.
Sorting out remuneration and the firm’s US strategy will be more tricky. Davies had to dispel rumours of a US merger on a number of occasions over the last few years, and suspicion has flared again with Linklaters believed to have come up with a list of potential targets.
“Wanting to merge with a US firm doesn’t amount to a strategy,” says Moore. “If there was a US firm that I felt would be an appropriate partner for us and they felt the same and the cultures wouldn’t clash, then why would I not think about it? But we’d have to do it with our eyes open.”
A merger is not likely to happen soon however, Moore adds. “I don’t think US firms are positioning themselves to merge with us anyway. They’re on the whole becoming much more New York-centric.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that it won’t be on my agenda. But we’re better off working out what we can control in terms of delivering strategy and drive it forward on that basis,” he says.
On lockstep, Moore says the firm is currently consulting on whether its pure lockstep structure remains fit for purpose. “It’s a discussion us and the partnership are talking about, there’s always consultations ongoing,” he says.
Linklaters has revisited lockstep again and again over the last three years. In early 2015 Davies held a review to look at adding gates to its equity, and a vote at its partner conference last autumn say the partners overwhelmingly rejected pushing through changes. Back in 2013 the firm commissioned a major paper on lockstep to consider its options.
“If something has served you well for a long period, that drives people to be more reluctant to consider making a change,” says Moore. “At some stage we’ll ask the question and see what happens.
“We’re coming to the end of our 2017 strategy,” he adds. “We need a new one that looks beyond the horizon. I don’t want a five-year 70-page static document that sits on a shelf. It needs to mean something so people can buy into it and support it, but also understand their role in the future of the firm.”
For now, Moore will be waiting for the result of the senior partner election to really effect some major change at Linklaters. Over the next year the pair will be forced to make some serious decisions about how the firm will look in 2023, when the way professional services firms go about supporting both their staff and their clients is likely to have seen significant change.