Withers, a rapidly expanding international law firm that focuses on representing private wealth, has named Geneva-based partner Justine Markovitz to serve as the firm’s next chairperson, starting July 1.
Markovitz will be the second woman to lead the firm, which has its origins in 19th century England, representing the landed gentry, as well as more recent U.S. roots in Connecticut. She replaces Ivan Sacks, the firm’s first U.S.-based chairperson, who served the maximum two terms.
“I’ve been here 20 years,” she said. “There’s so much that the firm’s got going for it and so many opportunities. I’m very excited to do it.”
Markovitz, a private client and tax lawyer, intends to continue her practice while leading the firm. She is qualified in England and started her career at several English firms before joining Withers in London in 1999. She became partner in 2004, and then moved to Geneva the next year to lead the firm’s new Switzerland office.
Markovitz currently serves as the co-CEO of the firm’s private client and tax division. For her individual clients, she has two primary responsibilities. One is tax planning: helping them navigate the increasingly thorny terrain in Europe and around the world. The other is acting in a fiduciary capability: either formally, by serving as a trustee, protector or company director for their privately held businesses, or informally, as a trusted adviser who’s easily reachable by all family members.
Markovitz said that this work will match up well with her new responsibilities of checking in on the firm’s 18 offices around the world.
“Most of the families that I deal with are based globally, not based in one single jurisdiction,” she said.
Her predecessor, New York-based Sacks, said the firm announced that it would be soliciting input on his replacement at its annual partnership conference in October. The leadership team then compiled a shortlist of potential replacements, who then discussed their willingness to serve.
“When it came to be time to have the election, Justine had emerged as the single choice that had wide approval across the partnership,” he said. “She was essentially elected on the nomination of multiple people with no one standing in opposition to her.”
Markovitz will serve an initial three-year term, with the prospect of a second term. She will work alongside the firm’s existing CEO, Margaret Robertson, who has sat in the role since 2007 and won an uncontested fourth term in 2018 that will keep her there until 2021.
On Sacks’ watch, Withers transformed itself from the transatlantic firm that emerged from a 2002 merger with New Haven, Connecticut’s Bergman Horowitz & Reynolds to a globe-spanning operation with over 160 partners and more than 450 other lawyers.
The firm added four offices in California and significantly grew operations in Singapore and Hong Kong while also touching down in Tokyo and Sydney.
“Now the second-largest office of the firm is in Singapore, and we have really transformed the geography of the firm in line with the growing demographics of wealth in the world,” Sacks said.
Sacks also oversaw the firm broadening its scope for handling the affairs of private clients, expanding from a focus on trusts, estates and taxation to encompass the needs of privately held enterprises. That’s involved bringing on attorneys who handle M&A and floating companies, as well as litigators. The firm is still building out these capabilities in the U.S., where the trend of private wealth operating companies trails behind Europe and Asia.
Sacks added that while the firm remains a market leader in the area, it faces growing competition from outside of the law firm sector: both the Big Four accounting firms and other entities with business models that aim to serve private wealth that focus on areas that are not regulated legal practice.
“We have ambitions for growth, so recruiting is always a challenge to maintain the level of intellectual quality and performance quality that we require,” he said. “We aim to keep doing that laterally, without losing our DNA and without losing our culture, which is what we’ve succeeded on fundamentally.”