It has been a long, long time since one of London’s elite law firms has genuinely shifted direction. So the shake up currently unfolding at Silk Street under the newish teaming of managing partner Gideon Moore and senior partner Charlie Jacobs is, professionally speaking, a big deal.
The mood music from Moore’s 2015 election had already signalled a more consultative stance – a welcome shift after a series of bruising post-Lehman restructurings.
Upon his election last spring, Jacobs, an outgoing rainmaker with by far the strongest reputation in Linklaters’ flagship M&A practice, took the warm and fuzzy rhetoric to new heights. The message was suddenly all about leadership ditching the technocratic, jargon-laden meddling of old in favour of a sustained charm offensive focused on a) partners and staff; b) clients; and c) potential clients.
Moore (pictured) passed an important early test in November, when, having assiduously consulted the partnership for an art-of-the-possible result, he got through a substantive overhaul of its lockstep pay model. Compared to the ad hoc fiddling at peers, Linklaters’ shake-up, which introduced a discretionary gate halfway up its ladder, was the most comprehensive overhaul of compensation yet achieved by London’s big four and managed with minimal dissent to boot.
But talking to Linklaters in the wake of its partner conference at the end of March, it is clear that this spirit of cuddly inclusiveness is more than a passing phase. Having drafted in advisers to undertake what may be the largest consultation ever attempted within a global law firm between January and March, the debate is now all about career flexibility, innovation and all manner of progressive initiatives.
Given that law firms excel at coming up with slick-sounding/poorly-implemented programmes there would still be much room for cynicism except that the most symbolic gesture goes beyond such platitudes. Moore aims to phase out metrics for individual partners and annual partner appraisals. Instead there will be a far-greater focus on team-based performance and business development and, it is argued, less room for the defensive behaviour encouraged by the old regime.
Given that metrics and detailed benchmarking were the cornerstone of the strategy of former head Tony Angel, and taken up by successor Simon Davies, this is a striking break with the past. Linklaters had always been ambivalent about Angel’s pioneering approach, but it became hugely influential in the legal profession at a period during the 2000s when Linklaters became London’s legal standard bearer. How this will work out is not yet clear – though Moore and Jacobs say there will be far more team-based debate and, indeed, much more dialogue in general.
Certainly, Linklaters had a problem to address, having done a poor job in recent years of bringing forward its next generation of partners and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit, a weakness frequently exploited by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Slaughter and May.
In contrast, the morale and recent performance at Linklaters has markedly improved in the last 18 months while the initially awkward dynamic between Moore and Jacobs appears to have developed nicely. It is still too early to say if Linklaters has genuinely regained its world-beating swagger and the firm still requires a fair bit of practice-reshaping to address some ingrained structural weaknesses. But if there is a premier league City firm out there talking a more convincing game than Linklaters right now, they are keeping it very quiet.
For more coverage of Linklaters, read ‘It’s good to talk – Linklaters repositions with focus on team work, innovation and a lot more soft stuff’