Will Linklaters be the first magic circle firm with a female boss?

Linklaters’ senior partner election in April will end nine months of management elections in the magic circle – but it has taken until now for a woman to put her head above the parapet.

It emerged this week rising corporate star Aedamar Comiskey has added her name to the runners and riders.

It is a brave move considering the election has until now been viewed as a two-horse race between Charlie Jacobs and Belgium-based Jean-Pierre Blumberg. And a number of market sources go even further and say it is, in fact, just a one-horse race, with Jacobs widely rumoured to be the favourite.

Comiskey is clearly not fazed. Although Jacobs and Blumberg were named as potential senior partner candidates as early as last summer, sources say Comiskey’s name was first floated just three months ago following her appointment to the senior board.

By publicly going for the top job, Comiskey has succeeded in setting Linklaters apart from Allen & Overy (A&O), Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Slaughter and May, and the firm has emerged as the unexpected frontrunner in getting a woman into management.

Neither Freshfields nor A&O put forward a single woman for the top job last year – even though the former fielded a combined total of six candidates and the latter had a contested election of eight possible names. Slaughters is notoriously secretive about its election process, but given its track record of promoting women to its partnership, it seems unlikely a member of its female partner contingent had a hope of replacing Chris Saul in an election late last year.

Meanwhile at Linklaters, Comiskey’s board appointment signalled significant faith in her by the partnership board, which is chaired by current senior partner Robert Elliott, and it is easy to see why. While a number of the firm’s corporate big-hitters have left for US firms in recent years, Linklaters ‘lifer’ Comiskey has stayed put since being made up to the partnership in 2001.

Since then she has made several of the firm’s biggest FTSE 100 clients her own, becoming client relationship partner for Amlin, Alent, Amec Foster Wheeler, Aviva, HSBC, Dixons Carphone and Tate & Lyle, to name a few. Sources close to the firm have said she is Linklaters’ “gateway” to many of its FTSE clients and her recent deals history speaks for itself.

Soon after closing Amec’s merger with Foster Wheeler at the end of 2014, Comiskey was advising another longstanding client Amlin on its £3.5bn acquisition by Mistui Sumimoto Insurance, while Alent was sold off to Platform Speciality Products in a £1.35bn deal. Last year she also worked on Visa Europe’s £16.1bn acquisition by Visa, and on HSBC’s £3.7bn sale of its Brazilian business.

On an extra-curricular basis, Comiskey is heavily involved with Linklaters’ Women in Leadership mentoring programme. All of this helped secure her a place as one of The Lawyer’s Hot 100 in January.

Aedamar Comiskey
Aedamar Comiskey

But what are her chances of winning the senior partner race?

Almost uniformly described by market sources as a “lovely person”, Comiskey is also said to be popular, highly-visible at the firm and “good fun”.

“She’s not a token vote,” says one source. “She’s not a shaper, more of a consensus builder, but she could definitely get the support from the middle of the partnership who want to keep the status quo.”

The idea that Comiskey represents the “old” Linklaters way and Jacobs the “new” is repeated again and again by current and former partners. Jacobs is understood to be running on a mandate of shaking up the firm’s lockstep structure, and is already rumoured to have discussed potential changes with managing partner Gideon Moore, whereas Comiskey could be seen to be “protecting the core values of Linklaters”.

The firm has typically been resistant to changes to its lockstep, rejecting adaptions based on practice area or jurisdiction in the past, while Jacobs is said to look to firms such as Freshfields, which sees adapting lockstep as key to securing star lateral hires and retaining talent.

Others believe Comiskey’s candidacy could damage Jacobs’ chances of securing senior partner by “splitting the London corporate vote”, ending in Blumberg coming out on top.

“She comes from the same stable as Jacobs so I was surprised to see her pitting herself against a colleague,” says one source. “Maybe it’s an Irish/Belgian plot to oust the South African.”

Her close relationships with clients would, in many firms, be seen as a disadvantage: the partnership could be hesitant to shift someone up to management if their fee-earning potential is at its prime. But this has not proved the case with Jacobs, who is arguably the firm’s biggest mover and shaker in corporate M&A, advising on the biggest deals of last 18 months including the SABMiller and AB InBev £71bn merger.

That Comiskey’s name has been added to the race has so far been declared a resounding good thing, at the very least serving to further democratise the election process, which will conclude next month. A loss would be unlikely to damage her reputation or standing in the firm, with Linklaters partners often staying on long after suffering election defeat. Blumberg’s career, for example, doesn’t appear to have been hindered by losing the senior partner election to Robert Elliott in 2011.

“She’s a strong candidate and will garner a lot of support, but I’m still putting my money on Charlie,” says a senior source, while adding there were still very much three candidates in the running.

“One shouldn’t underestimate Blumberg’s potential. The continental Europe vote could swing it.”