Dibbs' saint turns sinner
18 January 1999
Paul Rhodes, the man who stamped his aggressive, business-like style on Dibb Lupton Broomhead and established it as a national firm with a genuine presence in London, last week started work at Dibbs' arch rival. "It's like the devil coming into the office," says Rhodes about the impression he may have made on his colleagues at Hammond Suddards.
The new job, announced just 18 months after Rhodes left Dibbs, has provoked consternation at his old firm, where he was managing partner from November 1993 to December 1996. "Why now?" asks one of his former partners. "Why, at the age of 56 or so, does he want the aggro of going back into the profession he had finished with?"
For a year and a half, Rhodes worked alongside another former Dibbs partner, Stuart Benson, at their own consultancy company, Rhodes Benson Management. The pair advised professional practices, including Hammond Suddards, on strategy, and carried out case management for organisations involved in major litigation.
But towards the end of last year, Rhodes' wife landed a job in Yorkshire and he decided to follow her. He mentioned this to Chris Jones, managing partner at Hammond Suddards, and Jones mischievously threatened to start a rumour. He would put it about the market, he joked, that Rhodes had quit his management consultancy to run the insolvency department of Hammonds in Leeds. The pair laughed.
But it occurred to Rhodes later that this was not such a bad idea after all. By taking the job with a rival law firm, Rhodes would lose the annuity he was granted by Dibbs. "I'm delighted to lose that," he says. "I always thought it was a great idea when I was there, the concept being to get rid of people at 55, but when you receive it, it's not such a good thing. It's money for nothing. After the first few months it begins to pall.
"I was delighted to write to David Liddle, the finance director, and tell him I was working for another firm." He did not mention the firm's name, "but the news came out that day".
Staff back at Dibbs are not just puzzled, they are hurt. "A lot of people in this firm feel close to him," says one Dibbs partner, "but we do feel this move is distasteful." Another says: "Is Rhodes a man spurned? Is this all about revenge?"
It is hard to see why he should want revenge. Rhodes left Dibbs entirely of his own volition. "I thought I had taken the firm as far as I could," he says, staring out of the window through his dated gold-framed glasses. They match his shiny wedding ring and the buckles on his loafers. "I felt I did not have the time, energy or commitment for more, and I'd always said I'd go at around 55."
And no, it is not that he was kicked out. It just seems that Rhodes, and his chosen successor, Nigel Knowles, fell out of love with each other. Off the record, Dibbs partners speak plainly of "hate" between the two men, as though this was a matter of absolute fact. But Knowles, for his part, gave no hint of this before Christmas and responded to news of Rhodes' job with good grace. "Many years ago Paul did the same job for Dibb Lupton Broomhead and I hope he is as successful at Hammond Suddards." And Rhodes is also quick to deny the rumours: "Hate Nigel? No! Maybe Nigel hates me. But last time I saw him [at a retirement party for one of Rhodes' insolvency clients] we talked to each other, shook hands. Hate is a strong word."
Plainly uncomfortable, Rhodes rises to pour some more coffee. "I don't have anything to do with Nigel, like I don't have anything to do with a lot of other people there." Then he tries a new tack: "I don't believe in speaking to ex-wives, but that does not mean I hate them - though as a matter of fact I probably do. But I don't think about them."
But every so often Rhodes comes out with a comment that suggests he is monitoring his old firm closely. And he still speaks warmly of the building he found for Dibbs at 125 London Wall. "That was very special, chosen for a special reason - to show Dibb Lupton was in London for keeps." Does he mind that he might never enter it again? "No. I wouldn't care. The firm has moved on since I left - and so it should."
For someone with such extensive experience, Rhodes has actually spent relatively few years as a lawyer. He didn't qualify until his mid-30s, when his contemporaries were already taking a hand in running their firms. His father, a solicitor at the National Association of Bookmakers, sent him to Cambridge with the following advice: "You either go for a First and work hard, or enjoy yourself and get a Third." Rhodes opted for the latter. Unable to contemplate more exams, he left Cambridge for a job as a management trainee, then worked in marketing before winning a job in New York. But 10 years later he realised that qualification as a lawyer would give a fallback, a bit of independence. As a lawyer, he realised, "you could always go out and put a plate on the door and practise on your own".
Back in England, he took his Part II exams at Leeds Polytechnic. Initially, he thought of being a criminal lawyer, but his tutor at Cambridge discouraged this. "He said: 'Don't be bloody stupid, there's no money in that'." Would today's firms have taken him on at that age? "I'm not sure" he says. "But there are still some people taken on late. They can bring good outside experience, you can harness that, they're better than someone wet behind the ears."
Qualified in 1980, Rhodes established his reputation by suing banks. Within two years, he became a partner at Dibbs, and in 1983 he started to win high quality work from Cork Gully, followed gradually by Barclays then NatWest. By the end of the decade Rhodes was a licensed insolvency practitioner, a member of the council of the Insolvency Lawyers Association and a key figure in negotiations for the 1988 merger of Dibb Lupton and Broomheads.
In 1990, the merged firm took over the London insolvency firm William Prior & Co. As head of insolvency, Rhodes was sent to lead the firm's assault on the capital. The move south was, he says, "extremely painful because it lost me a wife". (He's currently on his fourth.) "But the quality of the work wasn't painful." In 1993, he became managing partner of the national firm.
That was then. What will his job achieve now, beyond some measure of revenge? Rhodes, who will not be a partner at Hammonds, has agreed to spend two years defining a strategy for the insolvency department and recruiting the people to implement it. According to Jones, he has "some incredibly exciting ideas".
Rhodes performed a similar task for Dibbs shortly before he left, writing his strategy paper on the future of corporate recovery work which suggested it was not good enough to source work from accountants - it was necessary, he concluded at the time, to go "higher up the food chain".
This will be difficult at Hammonds as a much of the firm's work comes from accountants, but Rhodes insists he will not come up with the same recommendations this time. After all, he says, times have changed. "The DTI White Paper - Peter Mandelson's last effort - embraces the rescue culture." Another novelty is the merger of Price Waterhouse with Coopers, which seems to obsess Rhodes. "If they went into widgets tomorrow," he declares, "they would have 20 per cent of the market within two years. They're heavy on insolvency, and the merger will have a huge impact on the market. Lawyers have got to change or they'll end up with tight margins and shrinking volumes."
He will also do some fee earning, which he hasn't done since 1993. An insolvency lawyer to his fingertips, still able to recall the "fantastic theatre" of his first creditors' meeting, he is excited about this and starts to tell me stories of the outrageous heartlessness of insolvency lawyers. One of these involves a man kicking a door down to extract a disabled boy from his bathroom, only to throw the entire family onto the street. "You have to laugh, or you'd cry," he says. Another concerns an insolvency lawyer who showed compassion to a family that had defaulted, only to find himself kicking them out two years later, at greatly increased expense to his firm. "The guy was teased about that for years," says Rhodes. "So what should you do?"
For all his bluff exterior, I can't imagine that kind of task comes easily, but Rhodes says it is no problem. "It doesn't come hard," he insists. "Why should it, it's my job?"
You have been warned. The devil is back at his desk.