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A relief result – Turf war avoided as Palmer defeats Crean in HSF senior partner battle

London-based corporate partner James Palmer has triumphed over Sydney-based Mark Crean to become the next senior partner at Herbert Smith Freehills.

A vote among the 453-strong partnership at Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) on Friday (7 November) saw Palmer elected as senior partner for a three-year term. He will take up the role on 1 February, with current incumbent Jonathan Scott set to step down from the role three months early and enter retirement after 35 years at the firm.

Palmer will also become chairman of the firm’s 11-lawyer partnership council, which has responsibility over the firm’s strategy, partner retirements and remuneration. He will be one of the three most influential figures at the firm, alongside joint CEOs Sonya Leydecker and Mark Rigotti, who were elected to serve three-year terms from 1 May 2014. Australian Crean is currently senior deputy partner.

The senior partner role has evolved from the executive chairman brief the title characterised at the legacy Herbert Smith. Palmer has indicated he will still spend more than half of his time in active client work as the dual chief executives now carry out significant amounts of HSF’s management.

Palmer told Legal Business: ‘The thing I’m very chuffed about is that the vote was evenly split around the world and not on geographic lines. Mark Crean, who is a very good friend of mine, had a lot of support in London. I also had a lot of support in Australia. People don’t just relate to their geography.

‘I’ve got a strong external profile and I’m very client orientated but it wasn’t a slam dunk. It wasn’t me a thousand miles ahead of everyone else and that didn’t surprise me.’

The first ballot closed on Wednesday 5 November, when London head of litigation Tim Parkes and EMEA managing partner Allen Hanen were eliminated from the race. Hanen made the final two in the previous race to become senior partner, losing out to Scott in 2009.

Down to just corporate partners Palmer and Crean, who faced off this summer in the race to make the firm’s partnership council after the firm’s election structure pooled the firm’s UK and Australian partners into one vote, with the slimmer partnership council excluding UK partners from a spot for a European partner, Palmer garnered support from across the litigation group and historic Herbert Smith offices.

Corporate heavyweight Palmer joined the firm in 1986 and made partner in 1994. He was a vocal supporter, aided by his position as head of corporate, of Herbert Smith’s merger with Australian firm Freehills on 1 October 2012.

Palmer, who was Herbert Smith’s head of global equity capital markets between 2005 and 2010, has been without a management role since the merger. Since then, he has helped to push the profitability of firm’s core corporate group in London – made up of around 35 partners – to around £1.1m per partner, nearly double what it was in 2010/11.

In the last 12 months Palmer has advised US pharma AbbVie on its collapsed $55bn takeover of Irish drug maker Shire and TSB Banking on its IPO and separation from Lloyds Bank. He is also the relationship partner for BP, which he helped to advise on the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Challenges lie ahead, with morale among the corporate group at a low following recent deequitisations among the partnership and the exit of another senior litigator to Debevoise & Plimpton, with the firm’s Asia managing partner Mark Johnson leaving for the US firm, where he will reunite with former Herbert Smith partner Kevin Lloyd and Tony Dymond.

The appointment of Palmer, one of Herbert Smith Freehills’s lead US relationship partners, will also be significant in stoking expectations that the firm will look to push on to secure a US merger in the medium term.

Subscribers can see ‘Consumed’, for this month’s cover feature on the merger and aftermath