Focus: Olsen v Abell: Battle Field
22 September 2008
The discrimination claim filed by Field Fisher Waterhouse trademarks head John Olsen lifts the lid on a partnership riven with disputes over clients, money and status
In the past four years Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) increased its average profit per equity partner by 131 per cent to £750,000. But success has come at a price.
As The Lawyer reported last week (10 September), a grievance claim by trademarks head John Olsen has revealed the extraordinarily aggressive culture of the mid-market firm.
“The culture’s very combative. From top to bottom everybody distrusts each other. The atmosphere of distrust and backbiting is institutional,” claims a source.
Another source describes the firm as a “war zone”. FFW declined to comment for this feature.
Certainly, now two of the biggest and most controversial personalities in FFW’s equity partnership are pitted against each other in a battle that is heading for court.
Mark Abell is the sole partner at the top of the FFW lockstep. As such he earned £1m last year and directs FFW’s strategy. His internal position is unassailable. But has he met his match in John Olsen?
In the summer Olsen filed an internal grievance with FFW that – in an extraordinary move – called for the expulsion of Abell from the firm’s partnership. Olsen then took this one step further, filing a claim with
the London Central Employment Tribunal alleging harassment and age discrimination. Unless Abell quits (which is unlikely) there is no turning back for Olsen. These are the actions of an angry and emotional man.
“It’s self-immolation and he’s pulling the IP practice down with him,” says a source.
Who’s the boss?
The key players in the IP practice are Olsen, who is head of the trademarks and brand protection group, Nick Rose, head of IP and IT dispute resolution, and Abell, head of IP, chairman of the European board and head of the business development committee, but not managing partner.
Olsen’s ;grievance ;is ;aimed primarily at Abell and Rose, who are close friends. This is not the first time the pair have been involved with ructions in the partnership. Back in the mid-1990s they had such a battle over management positions with head of commercial litigation Peter Stewart that all three were banned from running for managing partner.
Indeed, clause 7.12a of the FFW partnership agreement reads: “Prior to December 31 2021, none of Mark Abell, Nick Rose and Peter Stewart shall be entitled to stand for election to the position of managing partner (or any other position within the LLP having all or a substantial proportion of the responsibilities assigned to the position of managing partner).”
Olsen has picked up on this in his complaint and documents Abell’s influence on the firm via eight different management positions. His complaint, seen by The Lawyer, reads: “Every single meaningful decision made in relation to the running of the firm is essentially a decision wherein Mr Abell is in control.
Through these bodies he essentially governs the firm. His decisions affect business units, marketing policy, budget and development of European business and strategy.
“In fact, he has garnered more responsibility than the managing partner, Moira Gilmour, and as such I believe that he has manoeuvred himself into the position of quasi-managing partner.”
This has long been the case.
“He’s the shadow director of the whole thing,” explains a former partner. “He used [former senior partner] John Price as a puppet and I suspect Moira Gilmour is equally influenced by him.”
Olsen describes Gilmour as a “rubber stamp” for Abell’s decisions. This scenario would, of course, run contrary to clause 7.12a of the FFW partnership agreement. It is a clause that could be explained away as
a historical quirk, but Olsen is demanding full disclosure of the reasons for its insertion in the agreement.
The battle commences
So what is it about Abell that arouses such passion? He is phenomenally successful. He has built up the IP practice over the past 15 years and his robust ideas on strategy and his leadership mean he is highly respected by the partnership. The fact that FFW has propelled itself up the rankings so dramatically over the past few years is almost certainly down to Abell.
As Olsen notes: “Mr Abell is the only five-point ‘A’ equity partner at the firm. Not even Ms Gilmour herself has five points. As Ms Gilmour herself said to me at my last points review, ‘There’s only one five-point partner in this firm.’”
This obviously grates with Olsen, who regularly bills between £3m and £5m a year. But there are others at the firm who could also put forward a good case for receiving five points – head of corporate Tim Davies, for example, who in peak years has been the firm’s top biller, responsible for £5m-£6m in revenue.
But it is not just resentment that is driving Olsen’s complaints. The origins of his disenchantment lie in his relationship with Rose and a general decline in the IP practice.
Olsen alleges that Rose has made a catalogue of errors with clients that have cost the IP practice dearly.
First, Olsen cites Rose’s loss of the Navitaire v Easyjet case for the firm’s (then) biggest client Accenture after Rose failed to adequately interview a key witness. The firm’s IT head Michael Chissick managed to convince Accenture to continue to use the firm, but it has never again been used for disputes.
Olsen goes on to cite Rose’s representation of Andrew Knight, who claimed to be the long-lost son of Beatle George Harrison, on a conditional fee arrangement. The case resulted in the firm being forced to write off £1m in fees.
Olsen also mentions complaints against the firm from clients such as MasterCard and Elizabeth Arden, with the latter going as far as dropping FFW. Olsen was also questioned over apparent irregularities of expenses for Elizabeth Arden, something he dismisses as being “interrogated” in his complaint.
Olsen even makes a series of allegations of bullying and harassment against Abell. The language in which the complaint is written is highly emotional. “His work is his life,” says a source.
Cash is king
It all seems to be about money. A key part of Olsen’s complaint is the alleged attempt by Abell to transfer his status as client partner for US law firm Fish & Richardson to Rose. Olsen has cultivated a long list of US firms that refer work to him and any attempts to lessen this would directly affect his take-home pay.
If you are a client partner at FFW you get billing credit for any work referred to FFW forever more. Olsen claims that FFW was trying to forge an exclusive referral relationship with Fish & Richardson (a claim that FFW rejects, saying that it is simply trying to streamline a list of 300-odd US firms to a handful). Not only would this impact directly on Olsen’s practice, but he would be in line for a good chunk of cash if Fish & Richardson massively increased its flow of work to the firm.
Standing his ground
With all these grievances, the obvious question to ask is, why doesn’t Olsen just leave?
Well, it is not that easy to leave FFW. Its restrictive covenants last two years and apply to any client that has instructed the firm during the 12 months before leaving the firm. And FFW would enforce these covenants with a zeal that some might consider evangelical, to say the least.
Olsen claims he is being pushed into retirement, hence the age discrimination claim. The FFW retirement age is 62, an age Olsen will reach next April. But he does not want to retire.
“John knows he has to retire, but he doesn’t want to hand his practice over to anybody,” claims a source.
But another source, who is more sympathetic towards Olsen, argues that he just wants to be free to practise, if not at FFW then elsewhere.
Olsen is not a man who naturally invites sympathy. When The Lawyer revealed the extent of the internecine warfare on TheLawyer.com two weeks ago, a surprisingly large number of readers posted comments.
“What goes around comes around,” was a phrase that was repeated twice. Another reader claimed: “Anybody who knows Mr Olsen will be laughing at the thought that he can be bullied.” A third said: “This row has been brewing for 10 years.” Another branded the FFW partners as “Machiavellian sharks”.
The consensus appears to be that Olsen is charming and excellent with clients, but that he is no businessman in the modern way required by law firms. Certainly, Olsen’s departures from previous firms have tended to be dramatic. Olsen joined FFW from SJ Berwin in 1999 following a row over £2m of outstanding bills. He had similar work-in-progress issues at FFW before the finance committee came down hard on him. Prior to that he left Clifford Chance following a row over strategy.
The one thing that is clear is that Olsen is a maverick. Equally, FFW has a tough culture. This row was just waiting to happen.