Wilde Sapte's exit rules attract French scrutiny

Wilde Sapte is bracing itself for a possible partner exodus if a judgment on its controversial policy preventing more than two senior equity partners leaving each year is ruled unlawful.

The ruling by a French judge is due this week.

Tom McDonald, a partner in Wilde Sapte's Paris office, entered arbitration with the French bar in January to challenge the firm's policy.

McDonald says: “I can't talk about the case, but I am expecting the judgment any day now.”

If the judge rules that Wilde Sapte's constitution is unlawful in France, it would allow other partners to leave its Paris office.

And if the constitution is changed on an international level, it may lead to an exodus from across the entire firm.

John Riggs, partner in White & Case's Paris office, which McDonald is hoping to join, says: “Two other partners have resigned in Paris. They are stuck in a queue behind Tom. It is a prison system. A number have also tried to resign in London.”

Riggs even claims one partner in Wilde Sapte's London office has resigned without another job to go to because the rules are so restrictive.

He adds that it takes three to four years for a senior equity partner to leave after handing in his resignation, and says that there is no way another firm would wait that long for the partner to join them.

Riggs says: “You shouldn't be able to do that to a lawyer. The whole thing is absurd. We were even hoping that Wilde Sapte would merge so that they could free up Tom.”

Wilde Sapte managing partner Steven Blakeley admits: “It is unusual for a firm to say that only two partners can leave a year.”

But he sees it as a positive measure. He says: “This firm was sensible enough to limit the extent to which people could leave the partnership. We did this because the partnership needed to protect itself from partners taking a short-term view.”

He adds: “I certainly don't know anything about a partner giving in his notice even though he doesn't want to leave. That would be ludicrous.

“The three partners who want to leave in Paris wanted to go because they found other jobs when we were thinking of merging with Arthur Andersen last year. That is nothing new. I don't know of any other senior equity partners wanting to leave in Paris, and our junior equity partners can leave after serving six months' notice.”