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‘A statement of intent’: Can Layton’s strategy reinvigorate Clifford Chance?

Nearly three decades have passed since the game changing union of Coward Chance and Clifford Turner – a watershed moment in the evolution of global law famously executed by figureheads, Sir Max Williams and Geoffrey Howe. This week the firm’s managing partner Matthew Layton unveiled a strategy which will attempt to revive that audacious vision of brilliantly commercial partners and perhaps, a renewed breeding ground for imaginative thinkers.

Layton has laid out the firm’s international strategy, aiming at becoming the ‘global law firm of choice for the world’s leading businesses’; a vision that includes introducing fresh key performance indicators, making new leadership appointments, and increasing US and Asia revenues to approximately 20% and 25% respectively over five years.

Drafted in to help execute the plan is strategy consultant, Caroline Firstbrook, who Layton has appointed as chief operations officer following the step-down of Amanda Burton, as well as the firm’s Amsterdam managing partner, Bas Boris Visser, who has been made global head of innovation and business change. Increased investment will be made to its Continuous Investment Programme, which aids lawyers in determining the best approach to carrying out work – demonstrating Layton’s attempts to narrow the gap between legal and operational teams, while making better use of technology and flexible working models.

It all seems pretty obvious – tackling cost pressures and drilling commercial acumen into traditionally bookish lawyers – but as one ex-partner notes, the strategy message publicised this week could well appear to be the subtext of something much more meaningful. While it may not mirror the exact actions of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which hit headlines in recent months over talk it had broken its lockstep to top up salaries, Layton has opened the debate for increased flexibility within the firm’s own compensation system by aligning client satisfaction more closely with pay.

An ex-CC partner explains: ‘We looked at modification in the early noughties but there was a sense that people thought it wasn’t needed. Since then, huge numbers have left and it’s now necessary for retention. And it’s relevant to what Freshfields have done – if you’re going to grow your US revenues from 12% to 20% in five years – that’s a huge increase. To do that, it can only be done through laterals.’

‘It could be Matthew trying to start to define criteria that will be relevant for moving people out of the lockstep or effectively awarding them extra points. The client satisfaction and business development strategy is a platform for paying people beyond the lockstep. And for a firm like CC, you want the rainmakers to go out and get business – they’re the most valuable people. This ultimately is a statement of intent of what CC is going to attribute most value to in terms of partner performance. There was a tendency to regard technical ability and business savviness as almost being inversely proportional.’

In any event Layton is encouraging a renewed sense of vigour, having spent the last eight months strategising with the partnership – including discussions during its annual partner conference last September – to address challenges clients and the legal industry faces. And building that entrepreneurial presence is as much an inward message as it is an outward one.

As one current partner says: ‘Matthew has started fast and is driven to do things – he has an infectious enthusiasm and a clear sense of direction. And compared to previous firm strategy, it has a good focus – identifying the type of work we should be doing and the client mix we should have is really useful – the top end firms need a helpful light as to how we approach the work we’re doing. CC clearly is and wants to be a leading global firm – it has to be effective in the largest deepest markets now and going forward. Having a group target and a strategy to grow is essential for a firm that wants to be global.’