The news that Shoosmiths chief executive Paul Stothard is stepping down one year into his third three-year term sparked a flurry of debate on, with the majority of posters seeing a direct link between the firm’s handling of trainee deferrals and his departure.

As reported on (22 May), Stothard stepped down from the role after a seven-year reign two weeks ago, passing the baton on to litigation partner Claire Rowe, who will succeed him in the position on 1 August.

The news came hot on the heels of Shoosmiths being outed as the only UK firm not offering its future trainees any form of compensation for pushing back their start dates. Although readers of and its sister title Lawyer lambasted the firm for this decision, two of its deferred trainees, Tom Goff and George Roberts, defended the firm only to be mocked in a series of posts from readers.

Crucially, despite internal messages supporting the pair for “sticking their heads above the parapet”, Stothard stopped short of supporting them in public.

From a PR point of view this was a massive own goal, which was not helped by the fact that Stothard later told The Lawyer: “I don’t regret not offering any compensation to our trainees because we spent lots of time making the decision.”

In reality it is unlikely that there is a direct link between the deferrals debacle and Stothard’s decision to leave the firm. After all, it would take more than a couple of weeks to organise an election to find his successor. But however innocent the firm was in making its announcement on Stothard’s departure, the fact that it followed so soon after his refusal to defend Goff and Roberts can all too easily be interpreted as yet another PR faux pas.

And if there is one thing the firm cannot afford at the moment, it is more bad news surrounding its brand.

But again, it does not seem willing to take the chance to right any misconceptions publicly. Despite claiming that there is no link between Stothard’s departure and his handling of the trainees issue – and despite being given several opportunities to comment on this article – the firm refused the right of reply.

In declining the request for an interview, a PR at the firm said: “I refer you once again to the original press release and would like to reiterate, and you to kindly note, the fact that Paul has been chief executive officer for seven years, which is a lengthy term of office, and that he has other career ambitions that he now wants to pursue. We can assure you that he is leaving amicably.”

But whether Stothard is leaving amicably or not, his handling of the deferrals issue has already done some damage to how the firm is perceived externally. The general counsel at one of the firm’s clients has already vowed to take his work elsewhere.

“I think the whole thing has made them a laughing stock and Stothard comes across as incredibly George
Bushesque about the whole thing because he didn’t admit the firm’s treatment of trainees was wrong,” he says. “It questions the internal judgement of the firm as a whole, and therefore puts a question mark over its judgement on legal issues.”

While that opinion is arguably a little harsh, the truth is that Rowe, who was voted in unanimously by the firm’s partnership, will have her work cut out if she is to clear away some of the dirt that has become ingrained in the Shoosmiths brand.

Which is not to say that Stothard’s reign was all doom and gloom. During his tenure the firm opened new offices in Birmingham and Manchester and fee income more than doubled, from £44m in 2002 to £103m in the
2007-08 year.

The problem is that, as this magazine pointed out in a feature two weeks ago (18 May), mud has a habit of sticking.