Post #905 – November 29, 2021

Leadership Horse Races Rarely End Well


We’ve all been reading about talent wars, unprecedented levels of turnover and how various firms have reacted. Meanwhile, I’m intrigued to read in this week’s legal media that the “Clifford Chance Managing Partner RACE is Down to Three.”

From having worked with numerous large firms on their leadership succession issues, I know first-hand that having a contested election isn’t necessarily a negative, it only becomes highly problematic when it becomes public and political. In this case, partners are set to go head-to-head to succeed Matthew Layton, the firm’s current firm leader.  The media are loving it and this is when it all begins to go off the rails!

First, it can become quite distracting to everyone in the firm as it is politicized through continuous speculative discussions amongst partners.  This is when things begin to heat up as our various candidates move from subtle campaigning to having their friends become more overt in canvassing for their support. Factions develop, emotional discord creeps in and rivalries become intense.  It is not uncommon for partners to take sides for or against particular candidates which can result in overt behavior that deters teamwork and knowledge sharing. 

And what do the clients think . . . or does anybody care? In one instance because I was involved in overseeing the process, I had all of the candidates quietly confer with their largest clients.  One partner upon asking his important GC client “What would you think if I were to let my name stand as a candidate to become the firm’s next Chair?” came back to the nominating committee to report that his client’s response was “Think again!” This GC was making it very clear that if this partner were to proceed, the legal work would be moving to some other firm.

Finally, in looking at who might best assume the leadership mantle, firms will tend to gravitate to those who are legally talented and gifted rainmakers. In these kinds of contested situations a highly valued partner who loses may ultimately take it very personally (who likes to be publicly humiliated?) and decide to leave your firm. It should be no secret that headhunters usually swarm whenever firms go through highly contested elections because they know that there will inevitably be fallout. 

So, Clifford Chance may have just painted a bulls-eye on two of its Star Partners.

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