Legal Business Blogs

Comment: Winning hearts and minds (but mainly hearts) at Linklaters

The best Freshfields corporate lawyer Silk Street ever produced is now leading Linklaters, with incoming senior partner Charlie Jacobs ushering in a very different style at the City giant to the technocratic revolution pushed through by previous regimes.

The charismatic South African has long stood out, not only for a clubbable style more associated with Freshfields’ deal team but also for an entrepreneurial drive that looked increasingly exceptional amid Linklaters’ more seasoned M&A lawyers (the firm promises the next generation of M&A partners will rectify that).

With Linklaters’ partnership pushed through a series of restructurings and proddings with diminishing returns and escalating collateral damage over the years – most notably the bruising 2011 restructuring – it has become a received view in the City that Linklaters does not have the bench-strength expected of a firm of this pedigree.

As we note in our cover feature this month, not only is Jacobs (pictured) putting out a very different message to his predecessors but, in pairing up with new managing partner Gideon Moore, will work alongside another figure with a rock-solid reputation as a pragmatic practice builder.

The sales pitch is plain: in place of a remote leadership team, the pair are speaking the same language as the regular partners who have grown increasingly distrustful of Linklaters’ c-suite.

There is a lot to get done. As much as the firm strived to maintain an image of effortless progression, the late 1990s and mid-2000s were a turbulent period for Linklaters, beset by controversies, clashing views and some strategic bets that failed to pay off in Europe.

Tony Angel’s innovations in metrics, performance management and slicker infrastructure were ahead of their time. Such shifts unsettled the firm in a profound manner but at its boom-time peak, Linklaters appeared to have established itself as the pace-setter of the Magic Circle, combining the high-end class of Freshfields with the first-mover dash of Clifford Chance (CC) in its prime.

Since the banking crisis, the best you could say is that Linklaters has played a great hand indifferently. It remains a world-class operator with fantastic assets and heritage but no longer looks like a world-beater. Its business is also underweight in contentious areas, and the less said about the US practice the better. The soap opera in private equity has also not been great for the brand.

An early test of the new leadership’s ability to constructively finesse Linklaters onwards will come with the review of its lockstep, which definitely should be undergoing some substantive changes to reflect that the legal industry has moved on since 1999.

But, however that vote plays out, on paper Linklaters should be primed for revival. The firm has suffered some reverses but nothing like the structural issues that have hit CC. If Jacobs and Moore can win the hearts and minds they are so clearly pitching for – and, despite considerable differences in style, it is hard to imagine a better pair for that purpose – Linklaters can quickly get back to making life hard for its rivals, rather than its own partners.

For more on Linklaters please see ‘Rain men – goodbye Harvard Kool-Aid, hello plain speaking at Linklaters’ c-suite’