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Ashurst says no to Geffen for chairman in surprise election result

A popular long term board member with the social skills needed to pull together a newly-merged transcontinental firm, Ashurst’s announcement today (16 October) that outside runner, dispute resolution partner Ben Tidswell has been elected as chairman, is nonetheless a shock defeat for incumbent firm head Charlie Geffen.

After a simple ‘one partner, one vote’ election, the emergence of Ashurst Australia’s competition and consumer protection partner Peter Armitage as a contender for the top job had turned the election into a three horse race.

However, Geffen, whose current senior partner title was subsumed by the new chairman role after newly-merged Ashurst Australia revised its corporate strategy in July, was widely expected to be re-elected.

Instead, lesser-known Tidswell will now take over the five-year term on 1 November, as the top 20 firm beds down its merger with Big Six Australian outfit Blake Dawson.

Many of the largest stumbling blocks to the merger have notably already been ticked off, with the firm in September announcing its full financial integration including a single profit pool, single partnership compensation system and single governance system.

However, current and ex-Ashurst partners have reported a recurrence of the ambivalence that has plagued the 1,006-lawyer firm in the past, and Tidswell’s largest challenge is likely to be winning hearts and minds as he draws the partnership together.

The complex commercial disputes lawyer, who has been a board member since 2007, having joined Ashurst in 1993 and become a partner in the London-based dispute resolution team in 2003, acknowledges that the challenge going forward will be integration on a personal level. He told Legal Business: ‘A lot has been done over the past two years but now the challenge is making the business work and it’s about getting the partners thinking together.’

However, he denies taking over a firm that is largely apathetic to its merger, or that his election is a message of protest at Geffen’s role in pushing the merger through.

‘That would be completely wrong,’ says Tidswell, adding, ‘I have spoken to an enormous amount of partners and the mood is one of excitement. The merger went through with a very large majority and at no point at all was that message coming through.

‘This is not a backwards election, what we have done is really ground breaking and in all the discussion and healthy debates it’s not about history. Even if it had been, on the board I have been completely beside Charlie on the merger.’

However, one ex-partner comments: ‘There was a big “them and us” [mentality] at Ashurst. Charlie was very divisive, there would have been a lot of protest votes against him but Ben is a strong candidate and has lots of positives. A number of people would have voted for him anyway.’

Moving forwards, Tidswell points to Asia as an area presenting ‘exciting opportunity’ as well as maintaining the firm’s success in Europe.

His election will now be followed by a vote on the vice chairman role, which in the interest of democracy will only be open to Ashurst Australia. Current Ashurst Australia chairman Mary Padbury is widely tipped for the role.

The remaining board elections will then follow, in which four legacy Ashurst partners, three legacy Blake Dawson partners and an Asia partner will be chosen to assist in the firm’s management alongside the chairman, vice-chairman, CFO, two independent members and global managing partner James Collis.

Collis commented: ‘On behalf of the partnership, I congratulate Ben on his appointment. Ben has considerable leadership skills. As board member of Ashurst LLP for the last six years, and chair of the new partners committee prior to that, he has made a significant contribution to the firm and its strategy. He will make an exceptional chair and help us drive our ambition to become a global elite law firm.’

For more comment on the Ashurst and Blake Dawson merger, click here