17 November 2003
It is appropriate that Michael Cassidy’s first childhood memory is of something that is intrinsically London – a double-decker bus. This is because anyone who has met Cassidy will know that the man lives and breathes the capital – and in particular the City. In his various guises as a high-profile member of the Corporation of London, the director on the boards of some of the country’s best-known property companies and as a property lawyer, Cassidy has certainly left his mark on the City.
“I feel like a vicar looking at his parish,” he says when asked if he feels pride when looking at the City. “I know every building and every corner, and because of the IRA business [the 1992 bomb blast that levelled the old Baltic Exchange building] I know every street. I can’t imagine not being here.”
These days he holds a slightly different view of the City – this one is from Hammonds’ London office in Cutlers Gardens, which he joined six weeks ago.
It has been a rather tumultuous time for Cassidy recently. After spending 33 years at Maxwell Batley, he has been at three firms in the space of 18 months. It is probably not what he had in mind when he resigned from Maxwell Batley – a move that was itself eventful.
“They became very hostile towards me,” he says. “I haven’t spoken to any of them since. I sometimes wake up in the night thinking that I’m talking to my former partners, but it doesn’t happen in reality. I’m afraid to say it’s a little bit like a divorce and so it’s uncomfortable for both parties.”
That said, those at Maxwell Batley put a different spin on it. “We were surprised,” said one, “but once we knew his decision we made it very amicable.
His decision to leave the highly reputable niche City firm, where he had been senior partner for 10 years was twofold. First, Cassidy had wanted the firm to merge, but not all of the partnership were in agreement. Consequently, Cassidy realised his future lay with a larger firm. Second, as a father with two young children, he realised he was going to have to keep working well past Maxwell Batley’s compulsory retirement age of 60.
What he failed to realise when he jumped ship to DJ Freeman was that he was joining a firm that was itself about to reach a major turning point. “The disintegration was happening as I arrived because of the determination on the part of the insurance partners to go their own way,” he reveals. “When the departures happened in the spring it happened very quickly. I had no part to play in it. In fact, I was given very little time – like two minutes – to sign my resignation coupled with the offer from Olswang.”
Cassidy and Olswang, though, were not ideal bedmates. “At Olswang they really didn’t know what to do with me, and had very little interest in my contribution,” he says. Not that he holds any kind of grudge – he describes Olswang as an “extremely bright” firm and chief executive Jonathan Goldstein as a “genius”. Unlike the Maxwell Batley situation, his departure was extremely amicable.
So now he finds himself at Hammonds – and for the first time since his days at Maxwell Batley, he is going to be fee-earning again, which has caused surprise among some property lawyers and former colleagues. Cassidy is unperturbed. “Some people who’ve done it have told me it’s hard, but I welcome it,” he insists. “I said to the partners when they interviewed me that I was prepared to pick up anything to do with client work that they threw at me.”
Come July next year, Cassidy will be hoping to generate some work from former Maxwell Batley clients. He says he has adhered to his restrictive covenant to the letter, but once that lifts next year he says his former clients will be fair game. That list includes Hermes (formerly part of the Post Office), which was one of Cassidy’s oldest clients.
In fact, Cassidy’s break in both law and the property world is due in no small part to Hermes and the infamous John Stonehouse, the former postmaster general and Labour MP who faked his own death in Miami and turned up some years later in Australia. “I’m eternally grateful to him for one thing, and that is that he set up the Post Office Pension Fund in 1971,” says Cassidy.
At that time Cassidy had just been made up as a partner at Maxwell Batley, a mere six months after completing his articles. The firm won a pitch alongside five others to advise the fund, and Cassidy turned his full attention to it.
“They gave me a £100m takeover of a property company, which included 40 properties all in one hit, which we then spent many years looking after. We recruited partners to Maxwell Batley just on the back of that one transaction,” he says.
It led to a frenzied period of work for Cassidy at the niche firm, but in 1983 he started to venture outside matters purely legal. Indeed, one gets the feeling that he is more passionate about property and the City than he is about the law. Cassidy is perhaps best known for his involvement with the Corporation of London, where he spent three years as chairman of the policy and resources committee. During his three-year reign he helped trigger the redevelopment of around a third of the City.
“We wrote new rules that encouraged development, in particular big development,” he says. “We had buildings coming over the roads, coming over the railway tracks. We scoured the City trying to find new land where we could put these big buildings. Fenchurch Street, One America Square, 125 London Wall – all of these were pretty controversial at the time. It was a very exciting period and I really loved that.”
Cassidy was also integral in saving the Corporation of London from the axe of the Labour Party, which had said in its 1997 manifesto that it would do away with the body. Cassidy turned his hand to fostering relations with the party, which eventually decided to leave the corporation be. “I regard that as a turning point, because we used to be regarded as the poodle of the Conservative Party. Now we’re totally apolitical,” he says.
Similarly, he was key in raising the corporation’s profile. When he took over as chairman, there had not been an article about it in the nationals for two years; by the time he left they were averaging one a day.
Likewise, the corporation was responsible for raising Cassidy’s own profile. For example, he gained massive television coverage in the aftermath of the 1992 Bishopsgate bombing. “In a sense I was the public face to the City’s response to the bomb – which eventually led to the introduction of the City’s ring of steel.”
Although he stepped down as chairman in 1996, he still has an involvement with the corporation. He is also a director on the boards of British Land and UBS. This is on top of being chairman of property company Hemingway, the newly-formed Eagle Strategic Land, and Askonas Holt, a company involved in the classical music industry.
Cassidy admits that he is lucky that Hammonds has let him keep on these roles even though he has joined as a salaried partner rather than as a consultant. But he is adamant that they are only part of his working life. “I’m lucky to have these outside involvements, but I’m not going to regard the rest of my time as being free time, I’m gong to fill it with proper work,” he insists.
Despite the fact he has just taken up a cottage in the West Country for a year, which he plans to use for holidays, there are no signs of an imminent retirement. “I’m not prepared to decamp or go part time,” he says in relation to the cottage. But that is hardly surprising. For a man whose favourite building is the Erotic Gherkin, the West Country may not be the ideal place for him.