28 February 2000
Ryan Dunleavy meets Bob Peters, who is leaving his role as ICI’s deputy general counsel and re-entering the City at Rowe & Maw.
It is hard to believe that Bob Peters, ICI’s deputy general counsel, is about to take the most radical step of his career.
The aura of detachment which surrounds him is betrayed only by the fact that he is about to make the ominous shift from in-house to private practice, when he joins Rowe & Maw in May as a corporate partner.
But while Peters treats most things with indifference - when asked who a painting hanging in his office is by, he just shrugs his shoulders and states: “I do not know. It belongs to ICI” - there is one thing which breaks his mask of calm.
Just how will he set up a client base after spending over 20 years in the cosseted world of in-house law?
“It will be hard pulling in clients. I am not being recruited with an existing client base,” he says.
And unfortunately Peters will not be able to rely on ICI as a starting point for his client list, since he will not be handling work from his former employer.
Although ICI counts Rowe & Maw among its panel of firms - which also includes Allen & Overy, Freshfields and Linklaters & Alliance - Peters will have to build up a client portfolio from scratch.
David Temporal, principal at legal consultancy Altman Weil says: “Peters will have to become more proactive rather than reactive when it comes to getting work. That means he has to be a self-starter.
“He could end up knocking on doors and it may not happen as quickly as he would like.
“Implications for firms managing these people is an issue. You cannot leave the guy on his own expecting work to fall into his lap.”
But Paul Maher, head of corporate at Rowe & Maw, has faith in his new recruit.
“Everyone is worried about building a client base, but we have a lot of work here and a lot of opportunities. Bob will not have any trouble building his own client base,” he says.
It is understandable why Maher shows such confidence in Peters, as he himself made the jump from being in-house at ICI to joining Rowe & Maw in 1990.
Both men kept in touch through the 1990s, as Peters was Maher’s point of consultancy at ICI.
And at least Peters has some experience of what to expect when he moves back to private practice. He qualified at Monier-Williams & Keeling in 1970, now Monier-Williams & Boxalls, which specialises in alcoholic drinks transactions.
Two years later, Peters moved to Lovell White & King, now Lovells, as a corporate assistant, where he remained for four years until joining ICI.
Commenting on his time at Lovells, Peters says that he joined just as the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 came into use, which meant that he had to grapple with employment issues arising from its introduction.
He says: “The law changed regularly. The clients were interesting but after a while I thought ‘do I really want to do a lot of this?’
“It turned into a big employment job. I was drawn to ICI because it had a general commercial department.
“I decided to move from private practice to in-house because I thought I was becoming pretty specialised.”
But it has been 23 years since he was in the cutthroat world of the City and the laconic Peters recognises that it is a world that has undergone great change during that time.
So much so that he says he would actively discourage his three children from following in his footsteps. “I would not like them to become lawyers. It is a tough game to start off with now. It is very difficult,” he says.
But although he is aware of the downside of the legal profession, Peters has clearly relished his time at ICI. The company has spent the past 10 years frantically buying and selling a number of subsidiaries.
“We are going down the personal care route,” says Peters. This means ICI makes more speciality products, such as perfumes, cosmetics and paints as opposed to concentrating on pharmaceuticals, for which it is better known.
But this period of frantic commercial activity has afforded Peters a wealth of corporate knowledge that City lawyers can only dream of.
While Peters acknowledges the breadth of experience he has gained in-house, he feels that his role at ICI has reached a natural conclusion.
“It is a good time to move on to Rowe & Maw because ICI has almost got to the end of its transformation to a smaller business.”
He adds with a wry smile: “Rowe & Maw should see me out for the rest of my career.”
Rowe & Maw