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3 February 2014
Like football management, running a City firm is increasingly a young man's game.
In the same week that Allen & Overy shocked the profession by electing 44-year-old Guy Beringer as senior partner, Berwin Leighton announced that Neville Eisenberg, a mere 37, was taking over as managing partner at the firm.
When we meet for lunch, Eisenberg's youthful features are sporting a goatee beard, making him look very different from the photographs sent out by the firm.
The growth was added about six months ago, he says, dismissing the suggestion it was to add gravitas as he plotted his rise to become managing partner.
"Some people have asked whether I grew it so that I wouldn't be recognised," he says. This is said jokingly, but sadly there was a time when the throwaway comment might have been more serious.
Eisenberg is South African and grew up in the wine-growing region near Cape Town.
He came to London in 1987 to study for an LLM at the London School of Economics and to gain work experience abroad. But his move was also prompted by his distaste for the apartheid regime.
Having campaigned against apartheid as a student, he was active in Lawyers for Human Rights, which acted for children who had been detained without trial.
"I felt very uncomfortable with the apartheid system," he says.
"It was an unpleasant political environment and I was happy to escape it at that time."
Eisenberg has risen swiftly since joining Berwin Leighton in 1989, becoming a partner in the corporate department in 1995.
He says his election reflects the emergence of a "new generation" taking over at Berwin Leighton and promises a period of change and expansion at the firm following a strategy rethink.
But the firm also hailed the accession of Eisenberg's predecessor Bob Jones and respective heads of property and corporate David Taylor and John Bennett as a new generation. This begs the question: how many new generations can a firm have?
But Eisenberg believes change at the firm is "a process" and that Taylor and Bennett are part of the new breed who will succeed in driving the firm forward.
Berwin Leighton is in the tier of mid-size firms that many believe are being squeezed between the mighty magic circle and specialist niche operations.
The firm is best known for its highly-rated property practice, but Eisenberg says the firm will not go down the road of becoming a niche property firm. Instead the idea is to tap into its list of property clients to grow the corporate and finance side of the firm.
This will, he says, be "quite easy" because property is becoming less about conveyancing and more about sophisticated financing.
"The corporate finance, securities or tax side can be played in a number of different ways. If we don't invest in building finance, we will be stuck with vanilla property deals."
Eisenberg believes his election marks a radical shift for Berwin Leighton. So does this mean the firm has been under-performing?
"One needs to do different things at different times. In many ways in the last five years we have been putting in place systems to operate as a larger, more professional operation. We have reached a natural time to grow more aggressively."
Aggression is not something that you would immediately associate with Eisenberg as he talks quietly and easily about where the firm is going.
But he has been hard-headed in securing agreement for his ideas.
"We developed the strategy, and the people who developed it literally signed up to it," he says.
"We took it to the partners, who agreed it. Every partner had the opportunity to say if they didn't agree and there was almost no dissension to that.
"It gives management a mandate to do things, particularly if there is a new managing partner coming in, and we now have a very strong mandate about how to develop the firm in future."
An industry source, who knows Eisenberg well, describes him as "a charming guy and a great client manager", but says he is young for a position that has frayed the nerves of other men. He believes that Eisenberg was wise to secure his partners' commitment up front because for his plan to succeed he must heal the divisions between the once all-powerful property department and the increasingly influential corporate team.
"The sum of the parts is not greater than the whole," says the source. "It's a question of getting two plus two to equal five, and that's about getting people to work together and it depends on how willing the younger generation are to take up a new set of principles."
But Eisenberg says these schisms are in the past. "There is obviously a debate about the strategic focus of the firm and that involves discussions about emphasis between property and corporate.
"There may have been tensions in historical times, but there is no hangover of tension any more and it's not an issue for us at the moment.
"The strategy is important because it gives direction to the firm, and that is one of the reasons I'm so positive about the future."