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The five contenders in CC’s senior partner election have been revealed – who are the most credible candidates?

By Hannah Roberts | October 10, 2018 at 05:17 AM

For a firm that prides itself on being a trendsetter, the eclectic list of candidates in Clifford Chance’s (CC’s) upcoming senior partner election presents some intriguing questions as to the future direction of the firm.

As partners wait with bated breath for manifestos from the five nominees and for the voting process to begin, market observers have begun to pass judgement on the contenders. So who are the most credible candidates?

Of the five in the running, former London managing partner David Bickerton and Paris managing partner Yves Wehrli are perceived by many as the most obvious choices, with most agreeing that they are among the magic circle firm’s most externally recognisable partners.

Bickerton can also lean on his background as a finance lawyer, a speciality shared with incumbent senior partner Malcolm Sweeting and his predecessor Stuart Popham, meaning he could be a good fit for what seems a firmly set mould.

His eight years as London head will have served as something of an audition for the role, with successes during his tenure including his lead role in the firm’s ‘continuous improvement’ efficiency drive, and on his unopposed re-election in 2013 he was described as having “sailed through the process” after “doing a great job in the role”.

Bickerton is perceived as more reserved than other big personalities within the firm, which may make him less of an obvious choice, but as one ex-partner comments: “If you’re a good manager, you’ll upset people. He’ll have his detractors as well as supporters, but he wouldn’t do a bad job.”

Another adds: “David was very good at the detail-oriented stuff as London managing partner – he sorted out issues around the building. However, he may be more focused on the colour of the carpets than where the firm is heading for the next 20 years.”

Longstanding Paris head Wehrli is no stranger to elections at CC, having unsuccessfully run against Matthew Layton for the managing partner role in 2013.

He stepped down as continental Europe managing partner earlier this year, but it seems his 2013 defeat has not extinguished his leadership ambitions, and one ex-partner said he could bring a “Macron-esque” approach, “especially with Brexit looming”.

However, others question his chances of success this time around. “People would have to accept a non-London person as senior partner, and he would have to commit to being in London a lot more,” says one ex-partner. “There’s definitely a glass ceiling for people coming from outside of London.”

In comparison to Bickerton and Wehrli, former capital markets head David Dunnigan and Amsterdam managing partner Jeroen Ouwehand are less well known, although Dunnigan is cited by one ex-partner as being a “dark horse” in the race. “He’s a great guy with a successful practice and he understands how London works, which is important since it is still the powerhouse of the firm.”

Ouwehand, while described as “very sensible” and “well respected” by people close to the firm, is likely to face a challenge to convince CC’s London contingent that his reputation on the continent would translate to the City.

The final candidate presents perhaps the most interesting proposition, given that if successful, insurance head and CC lifer Katherine Coates would become the first woman to hold either of the top two roles at the firm, especially given the dearth of female leadership across the magic circle.

Market sources cite her excellent reputation as a dealmaker, advising key clients such as Aviva, Legal & General and Deutsche Bank, but her importance within her own practice could act against her. “Can they really afford to lose Katherine to a full-time non-practising role?” one partner asks. “There’s a commercial reality there.”

However, one partner describes her as “part of the fabric of the firm”, and her appointment would go some way to bolstering CC’s credentials as a forward-thinking firm.

Another ex-partner adds: “Lots of people will like the idea of having a woman as senior partner. It’s a question of whether people think she’s right for the job.”