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A symbolic blow as Debevoise hires HSF’s Asia head as senior partner race down to Palmer vs Crean

Given the huge strategic weight being placed on the Asia network of Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), the jewel in the international crown of the legacy City firm, the latest senior resignation to hit HSF will go down poorly.

Debevoise & Plimpton today (7 November) announced that it has hired Mark Johnson, the well regarded managing partner of HSF’s Asia practice, to bolster its position in the region’s contentious market. The hire comes almost a year since the New York law firm hired high-billing litigation partner Tony Dymond from HSF in London.

Johnson leaves HSF after 20 years as a partner at the legacy City firm, during which time he oversaw the opening of Herbert Smith’s disputes practices in Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok, Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo. Johnson first moved to Hong Kong in 1987 and has built a successful practice advising on shareholder disputes, regulatory investigations and commercial litigation. He is well versed in dealing with the increasingly active Hong Kong Securities & Futures Commission, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Johnson becomes Debevoise’s fourth partner in Hong Kong.

Lord Goldsmith QC, chair of European and Asian litigation at Debevoise, commented: ‘Mark has a long and successful track record in the Asia market and has built an impressive reputation as a leading white collar and regulatory lawyer. His addition adds further weight to our global white collar and regulatory defence practice and ensures we continue to have market-leading teams in the world’s major financial hubs.’

Johnson added: ‘Now it’s time for a change and a new challenge. Joining a team with such an existing global pedigree was an attractive proposition, as was working to help continue to grow the firm’s capabilities in Asia.’

Johnson is the 61st partner to leave HSF since July 2012, when the merger between Herbert Smith and Australian leader Freehills was voted through. The 450-partner global law firm saw a wave of departures in the wake of the merger, primarily from the legacy City firm, reflecting mixed views on the union but the pace of departures had slowed considerably.

HSF joint chief executive Sonya Leydecker commented: ‘Mark has made a significant contribution to the success of our pre-eminent disputes practice and the growth of the firm across Asia. He leaves behind a strong legacy.’

HSF is currently deciding between candidates to replace Jonathan Scott as senior partner in what will be a significant appointment for setting the firm’s post-merger direction and culture.

The contest is now down to a two-horse race between City corporate partner James Palmer (pictured), often regarded as the firm’s top M&A lawyer, and Australian partner Mark Crean.

The result is expected today with considerable pressure building for Palmer to secure the role given sensitivities that the legacy Australian firm is increasingly driving the post-merger firm at the expense of Herbert Smith partners. However, Crean did defeat Palmer earlier this year in an election to the firm’s partnership council.  

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