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Five stand as CC kicks off senior partner race but early favourite Sandelson not in contention

Leadership at Clifford Chance (CC) has over the last 20 years swung wildly between prestige and poisoned chalice but the just-launched race to become the London giant’s new senior partner shows no shortage of candidates.

Former London head David Bickerton (pictured) and ex-Europe chief Yves Wehrli launched their bids to become CC’s next senior partner, Legal Business has learnt. Other prominent figures in the race to replace Malcolm Sweeting after eight years include insurance head Katherine Coates, former capital markets chief David Dunnigan and continental Europe litigation chief Jeroen Ouwehand.

The five candidates presented their pitches to the partnership in recent days and the vote will take place by the end of October. Sweeting’s second term expires at the end of the year.

Despite being widely tipped as a popular candidate, former litigation head Jeremy Sandelson is not on the ballot.

This leaves well-liked finance partner Bickerton, who stepped down as London head in 2017 after eight years, as a strong candidate. Nevertheless, with five experienced candidates, it remains an open race.

The role has traditionally been in the hands of influential finance lawyers, befitting CC’s heritage as one of Europe’s elite debt counsel. Both Sweeting and his predecessor Stuart Popham led the London banking practice before taking over as senior partner (previous senior partners Keith Clark and Michael Bray were also banking lawyers).

The other two London-based candidates have held global management roles for years, with Dunnigan leading the 557-partner firm’s capital markets practice for 12 years until 2014. The election of Coates, who heads both the London financial institution group and the global insurance sector team, would send a strong message from a firm which has long been seeking to improve gender balance. Despite a target for women to make up 30% of the partnership set back in 2009, CC counted 18.2% female partners in 2017.

The election sees Paris managing partner Wehrli on the ballot again after he lost to Matthew Layton in the race to managing partner in 2014. According to one former CC partner, Wehrli’s candidacy to senior partner has been floated for years. After he lost to Layton, many said the Frenchman would be better suited for an ambassadorial rather than an executive role. He led CC’s continental European practice for four years before stepping down in April, replaced by Charles Adams.

Some partners have in recent months pointed to the fact that a non-London based senior partner would help build the image of CC as a global outfit, giving some support to Wehrli and Amsterdam managing partner Ouwehand.

Not sitting on the management committee, the senior partner role was traditionally considered to carry less weight than practice heads but the sprawling nature of CC’s management has often meant strong figures in the role like Popham could wield considerable clout.

As such, Sweeting is said to have played a key role in supporting Layton’s objectives, such as changes to the firm’s remuneration structure. A former partner said: ‘When there is a big change, it is really the senior partner going around with the partnership council, talking to everyone, making sure their voices are heard, ensuring check and balance.’

The senior partner race comes at an interesting moment for CC’s development in a global legal industry increasingly defined by US law firms. Despite the Magic Circle in general having a subdued period of trading since the banking crisis a decade ago, CC under the leadership of Layton is acknowledged to have had some success in boosting productivity and paring back its notoriously flabby management ranks.

To have a hope of securing its global ambitions, the new senior partner will have to help galvanise an institution that has struggled to sustain the dash and clarity of its 1990s incarnation. Quite a challenge. Quite a prize.