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Charismatic and strategic: HSF names Asia managing partner and disputes leader D’Agostino as CEO

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) has appointed senior litigation hand and managing partner for Asia Justin D’Agostino (pictured) as its new chief executive officer (CEO), following Mark Rigotti’s decision to stand down from the role in spring of next year.

D’Agostino, 47, also spearheads the firm’s global disputes practice and US regions. Unlike the London-based Rigotti, D’Agostino will retain his home base in Asia during his tenure where he manages some of the firm’s largest clients.

‘It’s not accidental, but we picked him not for his location but as part of the globalisation of the firm,’ HSF senior partner James Palmer told Legal Business. ‘We don’t regard ourselves as having a head office. But Justin’s been accelerated into leadership early in his career, and anyone who meets him knows he is a charismatic people’s person but also a strategic person.’

The appointment by the firm’s council has been confirmed by a partnership vote, with D’Agostino now set to serve a four-year term effective from 1 May 2020. The Scottish-born lawyer first joined legacy Herbert Smith in 1998, before becoming a partner in 2007. His appointment comes as Rigotti announced in October he would stand down as CEO, citing ‘personal and professional’ reasons. Leaders at HSF typically do not exceed two terms, and Rigotti’s second stint is due to end in April 2020.

Meanwhile, an appointment from the firm’s disputes practice provides balance with corporate heavyweight Palmer acting as senior partner from London. Palmer saw off a challenge from disputes partner Mark Shillito in 2018 to be re-elected as senior partner and chair, with a vying for influence between the firm’s contentious and transactional practices considered a long-standing dynamic at the Anglo-Australian giant.

Palmer, however, stressed the tensions between the two practices are overstated: ‘the corporate and disputes thing is massively exaggerated, but of course his appointment reflects the importance of disputes to this firm. What we do is look at the strategic needs of the firm; the characteristics of what can help that; and then we look at the individuals.’

In 2016 the firm phased out its dual-CEO model, with Rigotti being elevated to the position of sole leader at the expense of former partner and head of disputes Sonya Leydecker. Rigotti has since been widely credited for winning over a sceptical City partnership following the firm’s 2012 merger and successfully integrating the two legacy firms. However, the firm’s latest financial performance proved sluggish, with revenue growing only 4% to £966m. Profits saw healthier growth, hiking 11% to £307m while profit per equity partner also grew 11% to £949,000.

While no dramatic strategic pivots are expected, Palmer stressed D’Agostino’s appointment would inevitably bring change. ‘He’s not a mini-James or a mini-Mark, he’s his own person and he’ll bring fresh thinking and you can’t change leaders without some change.’