Clifford Chance’s London office

This week, Clifford Chance’s Amsterdam managing partner Jeroen Ouwehand secured something of a surprise victory over Paris chief Yves Wehrli in the final round of voting to elect the firm’s new managing partner.

The election of a European partner at a London-based magic circle firm could signify that continental Europe will occupy a more dominant position in the magic circle firm’s hierarchy in the future, lawyers say. And with Brexit looming, that move could make Clifford Chance well-positioned for the future.

Jeroen Ouwehand

The appointment “puts a European stamp on the firm” according to one former partner, and in the short term it appears that Ouwehand will remain based in Amsterdam, with no immediate plans for a relocation, although more travel will be inevitable as he communicates his leadership vision to the wider firm. He assumes his new role in January.

Those working on the continent attest to Ouwehand’s credibility, with one former partner describing him as “very sensible” and “well respected,” while internally Ouwehand’s personality has been compared to that of charismatic U.S. politician Beto O’Rourke.

The continental ex-partner added that Ouwehand has a very direct management style, is focused on development and is trusted within the partnership. “I’d go so far as to say he’s inspirational,” the former partner said.

Ouwehand has held other leadership roles during his time at the firm, including as leader of the firm’s partner selection group from 2010 to 2015 and head of the continental European litigation and dispute resolution practice.

The challenges presented by Brexit and the importance of maintaining strong links with the continent was not lost on the partnership, with Ouwehand himself noting that his focus will be to “ensure that we are constantly challenging ourselves to anticipate and respond to changing global and economic realities.”

One former European partner said the choice made sense for Clifford Chance, noting that, post-Brexit, the firm will not need the number of lawyers in London that it has today, while it will need more lawyers in Continental Europe.

“Someone who sits at the center of Europe, but not in France or Germany, is necessary to head the firm’s transformation,” the former partner said. “If they aren’t, the firm will not be well positioned in post-Brexit reality.”

At the outset of the race to become Clifford Chance’s next managing partner, Ouwehand was seen as a definite underdog compared to former London managing partner David Bickerton, insurance head Katherine Coates and former capital markets chief David Dunnigan, as he had a much lower profile among the London partnership.

Initially, former continental Europe managing partner Wehrli was seen as the bigger threat to the London-based contenders, but the fact that the final round of voting saw two Europeans go head-to-head meant an expected block vote failed to materialize.

“This will be the firm’s first non-London-based senior partner, but the interesting thing is that London partners are comfortable with and voted for that,” one Clifford Chance partner said. “All of the London candidates were strong candidates, too, but the partnership still voted for someone outside of London.”