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Freshfields First Woman Chair: Lockstep Won’t Stop U.S. Growth

Oct. 5, 2020, 10:01 AM

Georgia Dawson sees her new role as the first woman to lead Freshfields, and any of London’s Magic Circle international law firms, as an opportunity to bolster the industry’s diversity efforts, continue her firm’s expansion in the U.S., and shake up some traditional law firm views following the pandemic.

Dawson also told Blomberg Law the firm will not be held back by its modified lockstep compensation model—based largely on seniority—from hiring top talent in the world’s largest and most profitable legal market.

“The steps we have taken in the United States demonstrate that our lockstep fully supports our strategic ambitions and gives us that flexibility,” said Dawson, who as managing partner of Freshfields Asia region has split her time between Singapore and Hong Kong. She will relocate to London in her new role, which starts in January.

Dawson takes over a firm that has been on a compelling two-year run in the U.S., a market that has long bedeviled top U.K. firms. Past efforts to compete head-on in prestigious practices with Wall Street firms have been tripped up by adherence to lockstep pay and relatively lower profitability. That can make it harder to attract top-riced legal talent. The firm has more than 200 lawyers in the U.S. in New York, Washington, and Silicon Valley.

Lockstep systems have come under pressure in recent years with more firms willing to bid top dollar for partners. Last month, Davis Polk & Wardwell said it would modify its lockstep system in an effort to keep and recruit lawyers.

The more than 275-year-old firm two years ago hired prominent dealmaker Ethan Klingsberg, who has already propelled it toward the top of M&A league tables. The firm made a splash landing in Silicon Valley earlier this year, hiring five partners from firms including Davis Polk, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Latham & Watkins, and Sidley Austin.

U.K. firms have previously seen the US as a place to service their existing clients’ stateside ambitions, and possibly grab some US companies’ international work, but Freshfields is taking a head-on strategy. The firm wants to represent top U.S. companies in their biggest deals; advise them on important regulatory matters; and represent them in high-stakes litigation.

“That is where we are getting the traction and winning the market share,” said Alan Mason, an architect of the firm’s U.S. strategy who will in January become Freshfields’ first U.S.-based managing partner. “We’re doing that because our strategy is very clear. We have the relationships with these core U.S. clients, and we have something our competitors don’t which is our fantastic global platform.”

‘Must be a Way’

Since the news broke that she had been elected senior partner, Dawson said a “remarkable” number of women from across the industry had reached out to express support. She said promoting the firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts was a major part of the strategy developed by the new leadership team, which includes Mason, Rafique Bachour and Rick van Aerssen.

Given the breadth of support she has received from the industry so far, Dawson said “there must be a way” for her to capture that and partner with existing diversity & inclusion efforts to promote change. But she said she was still “embryonic” in those plans.

“The job brings a lot of responsibility in and of itself,” she said. “I think also being the first [woman chair] at our firm and the first at a Magic Circle firm brings an additional layer of responsibility.”

Dawson also said the pandemic allows the firm to rethink its approach to office space. News reports earlier this year said the firm plans to install a hoteling-type system that allows lawyers to share offices when the firm moves into a new building in London next year.

“It allows you to look at everything fresh, and we don’t have to simply follow the patterns that were followed in the past,” Dawson said. “We can rethink the way for the workplace of the future, which I find quite exciting.”

Dawson said she received the news of her promotion through a phone call from a German M&A partner while she was eating dinner at her home with her children asleep.

“They knew I was going to get the news that evening,” she said. “It was just as they were getting on the school bus and my oldest son said, ‘Are you the big boss?’”

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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