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Updated: ‘I like building businesses’ – Ashurst blow as ex-head Geffen quits with corporate partner for Gibson Dunn

It had been long rumoured but the loss that Ashurst clearly wanted to avoid has materialised as it was today (1 October) confirmed that the firm’s former head Charlie Geffen has quit alongside corporate partner Mark Sperotto for a US rival.

The pair join Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the top 20 Global law firm, becoming the fourth Ashurst partners to join the Los Angeles-bred giant’s expanding City arm.

Geffen, the high profile former head of Ashurst and a driving force behind its buyout practice, will head Gibson Dunn’s firmwide private equity practice and chair its City corporate practice. He will focus on global corporate and sponsor relationships, including all types of M&A and private equity transactions. Sperotto will continue to focus on cross-border M&A, private equity and equity capital markets transactions.

Geffen was famously defeated in a leadership election last year by litigator Ben Tidswell in the wake of the vote for Ashurst to push ahead with full financial integration with its Australian partner Blake Dawson. After losing the partnership vote in November 2013, Geffen assumed his role as a corporate partner up until March 2014 when he took leave. Geffen told Legal Business that since then he has sought opportunities inside and outside of the law, but in the end decided to join Gibson Dunn because of its US platform and its strong links within the regulatory, antitrust and transactional practice areas. He is also understood to have looked at in-house positions and consultative roles.

While Geffen said he has not handled direct private equity work for the past five years because of his management responsibilities, he says one of his aims is to grow Gibson Dunn’s corporate relationships.

Geffen said: ‘I have known Ken Doran [Gibson Dunn managing partner] for a number of years and love the culture of the firm. Gibson Dunn has a strong antitrust and regulatory capability and it is extremely hard to compete with US firms in this aspect. It is one of the most profitable global firms in the world. The firm is focused on building its capabilities in London.’

Both Geffen and Sperotto handed in their resignations this morning. With regard to his former firm, Geffen added: ‘Ashurst is a strong English brand and I am hugely proud of what the firm achieved during my time there. The business has been through a big transformation and it’s entirely natural for it to be in a new phase. I led the firm for five years and this is a natural career progression. I like building businesses.’

Gibson Dunn co-partner in charge Tom Budd told Legal Business: ‘Our hiring process will continue in the City. We have a strong litigation, corporate and M&A practice and may make further hires in private equity and finance.’

No start date has been confirmed for both Geffen and Sperotto as yet.

The moves follow the exit of former Ashurst corporate partner Nigel Stacey, for Gibson Dunn in June, after corporate partner Jonathan Earle left in April.

The departures come at a sensitive moment for the 420-partner firm, which has faced mixed views internally over its Australian tie-up and the defeat of Geffen, who enjoyed strong support in Ashurst’s City corporate practice. Notably, the firm also last year saw the departure of highly rated co-head of corporate Stephen Lloyd for Allen & Overy, in what was seen as a blow to its corporate practice.

There have been concerns that Geffen was effectively voted out by the Australia side of the firm, amid expectations that Geffen would have pushed to rationalise its partnership after the union. However, Ashurst had initially hoped to convince Geffen to stay on in a senior role.

A spokesperson at Ashurst said: ‘Charlie has made a tremendous contribution to the firm over 30 years including five years as senior partner of Ashurst. He leaves a considerable legacy and we wish him well.’

Despite its $1.39bn revenues, Gibson Dunn has so far largely focused its City arm on disputes, with Legal Business’s Global London research showing its UK arm shrinking from 57 lawyers to 48 between 2008 and 2013. However, the firm has been clear about renewed ambitions to build out a fully-fledged English law practice covering mainstream corporate work. It currently has a total of 22 partners in its City practice, 60% of which sit in transactions, with the remainder in litigation.

For more analysis on Ashurst’s post-merger fallout from Legal Business click here.