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Corporate v litigation: Palmer to contest HSF senior partner election against disputes head Shillito

In an announcement that will do little to bridge the long-running divide between the firm’s transactional and contentious branches, Herbert Smith Freehills’ (HSF) senior partner election will see incumbent corporate partner James Palmer go head to head against dispute resolution chief Mark Shillito.

Nominations for the election closed today (23 February), with the vote slated to take place during the second week of March. There will be just one round of voting as there are just two candidates, with the winner requiring over 50% of the vote to be successful.

The safe money is on Palmer (pictured) to be re-elected who, despite ruffling a few feathers internally, carries significant respect both within and outside the firm. One external peer described Palmer as ‘a good leader, a nice chap and he speaks well. He’s outward-looking and collegiate, he’s supportive of those around him.’ A HSF partner added: ‘our current senior partner is a very good person to be in the role.’

Palmer also has experience on his side. He saw off three other contenders for the HSF senior partner role in 2014, with London litigation head Tim Parkes, EMEA managing partner Allen Hanen and Sydney-based M&A partner Mark Crean losing out. According to Palmer at the time, the partnership did not vote along geographic lines and he had ‘a lot of support in Australia.’

Shillito has pedigree, having been with HSF since he was a trainee, becoming a partner in 1996. He became head of disputes for the UK & US when legacy Herbert Smith merged with Freehills in 2012, and has overseen high-value disputes in sectors such as life sciences, media and telecoms.

But one former partner is doubtful that Shillito has what it takes: ‘I can see that the litigation side of the practice might be flexing its muscles but I don’t really think that Mark is likely to cause any change in the strategy of the firm. It needs someone who is going to improve the transactional side – someone with clear thinking and with the courage and leadership to make changes.’

There had been speculation that widely respected arbitration head Paul Hodges QC would also be in the running for senior partner and, as one HSF insider insisted: ‘If Paula Hodges were to put herself forward she would win.’

Shillito’s decision to stand provides clarity to this week’s revelation that he was stepping aside from his role as head of disputes. As of 1 May, much-touted banking litigator Damien Byrne Hill will assume Shillito’s old role .

Rather than the geographic focus of HSF’s last senior partner election, this election will be defined by the ongoing turf war between the firm’s pre-eminent disputes arm and its comparatively weaker corporate division. One ex-partner commented: ‘For many years there was a tension between corporate and litigation with litigation being the stronger part of the firm. But the firm’s strategy has been built on the demands of the corporate side of the practice.  It would take a very strong leader to change that.’

HSF declined to comment.

(£) For more on HSF, read this month’s interview with the firm’s chief executive Mark Rigotti.