The top ranks of UK firms are teeming with new faces. The Lawyer asks what their plans are for taking up the baton?
Day one in a new job is always a daunting prospect, so spare a thought for the current crop of new management across the UK legal market. And there are many.
Consequently, The Lawyer rather helpfully thought it would be handy to round up some of the new faces and grill them on their ambitions, hopes and, dare we say it, fears for their new roles.
And while we were at it we thought it would also make sense to hear from some of those who are stepping down – or in a few cases starting their latest term – to find out what pearls of wisdom they might have to pass on. Such as this gem from the managing partner of Leeds-based Shulmans, Tim Halstead, who became chair of the management board in a governance restructuring this year:
“I’ve learned more in the past five years than (I did in the preceding) 15, because you only realise why you’re chasing bills when money is tight and you have to make sure there’s enough in the kitty to pay the tax,” admits Halstead, managing partner for the past 20 years. “All those tips your accountant tells you really are worth knowing. Listen to them – and don’t ignore the little things.”
In this market, that is sound advice. For more, read on.
Slaughter and May
On 1 May disputes partner Richard Clark took over the reins from Graham White as Slaughter and May executive partner, in the process becoming responsible for the firm’s people, finance, systems and compliance.
Of course, at Slaughters the senior management structure (like many things at the firm) is somewhat different from its competitors. The executive and practice partner roles cover a number of the areas other firms expect the managing partner to perform.
“In broad terms, my role as executive partner focuses on people, finance, systems, premises and compliance,” says Clark. “In this role I naturally work closely with Chris Saul, our senior partner, and Paul Olney, our practice partner.”
Like many a new chief, Clark says he intends to spend his first six months getting to grips with the job, while keeping his client work ticking over. That said, Clark has already spent 13 years on Slaughters’ partnership board (which is made up of four practice stream heads and four other partners elected from the partnership at large, with the senior, executive and practice partners being ex officio members), making him, as he puts it, “pretty clear on my priorities”.
These remain true to the priorities of Clark’s predecessor, namely “to focus on ensuring the efficient and effective running of the firm to underpin the provision of legal services of the highest quality in the UK and internationally”.
Well, nobody really expected a revolution at Slaughters, but the firm is not immune to change. Most critically, it has seen its best friends model come under pressure, with Davis Polk & Wardwell launching a London English law practice and the firm considering whether to add US law capability to its Hong Kong base by hiring US-qualified lawyers.
Clark knows much of his workload will be business as usual, but even at Slaughters, things change.
At Travers Smith, corporate head Chris Hale has the unenviable task next month of having to step into the shoes of Chris Carroll as the firm’s senior partner. Even Hale, the man who founded Travers’ private equity group and has headed corporate for a decade, admits Carroll will be a hard act to follow.
And as with Clark at Slaughters, Hale knows that one of his key tasks will be to oversee the maintenance of Travers’ best friends strategy in the context of a market that appears to be moving relentlessly in the opposite direction.
“The Travers model is to be the best at what we do while focusing principally on English law and operating from one financial centre, London. That isn’t going to change,” insists Hale. “I’m confident it’s a robust model.”
Hale says he believes that, like Slaughters and also Macfarlanes, London’s other English-law only single-site elite firm (we’ll conveniently forget Travers’ tiny Paris offshoot), Travers’ “position in the legal firmament” is secure.
Changes such as Davis Polk’s English law launch are minor details, suggests Hale.
“Moves such as that might raise questions about whether a particular firm will be cemented into the best friends network for all time,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean the model itself is no longer viable.”
At Travers, management is led by a team of managing partner (Andrew Lilley) and senior partner, with the precise roles being determined by the skills and ambitions of the individuals concerned.
Much of Hale’s time, once he takes over officially from Carroll, will be spent on business development (BD), focusing on clients and trying to ensure as much cross-selling as possible is taking place among the partnership.
Indeed, Hale sees his key strength as BD. The lawyer, who has been at the firm for almost 30 years, founded the private equity department almost two decades ago. The three-lawyer group has mushroomed into one of around 40 lawyers, the firm’s largest.
“I’m quite proud of the way a significant number of clients have been embedded and developed over the years,” says Hale. “Externally, I plan to focus particularly hard on clients, talking to them to find out their needs while trying to encourage our partners to work across departmental lines, and to develop further our sector initiative. Internally, it’s fair to say I’m going to have a few more committees to sit on.”
Clearly, what excites Hale is the external BD opportunities rather than the chance to have his say on the remuneration committee, finance committee and international committee.
Field Fisher Waterhouse
Field Fisher Waterhouse’s (FFW) new leadership team has plenty on its hands. After failed merger talks with Lawrence Graham and then Osborne Clarke plus the usual helping of intrigue – for example, the suspension of IP and IT head Mark Abell from the partnership ahead of his move to Bird & Bird – the firm has a serious job on its hands if it is going to revive its image.
The duo tasked with doing just that is managing partner Michael Chissick and senior partner Matthew Lohn. Lohn was elected in 2011 to replace Moira Gilmour, but after taking extended leave Lohn passed the leadership role on to Chissick, whom he beat in the original vote. Chissick’s acting managing partner role became a permanent one in February, with partners approving it in a poll in March. Lohn is now senior partner.
One of Chissick’s objectives is to improve the firm’s culture after several years of apparent in-fighting.
“The cultural change is around trying to make sure we are more open and collegiate, reinforcing values we’ve had for a long time but that perhaps haven’t been at the forefront,” he says. “It’s just like any other organisation. You’ve got to keep people on board. You try to do a cascade and get buy-in.”
Except, as Chissick points out, a law firm is not quite like any other business and this might make the job tough.
“Law firms are unusual organisations for getting things done in,” he explains. “It’s not like being a chief operating officer of a company. Here, you have to acknowledge that we’re still an old-fashioned collegiate partnership where partners have a voice. I can’t just say ‘tomorrow this is going to happen’.”
Chissick has come up with innovative way of communicating with partners and staff, a role he takes seriously.
“There’s a lot (of communication), whether it’s by town hall meetings, podcasts, the magazine or general announcements,” he says. “And then it’s down to my style. Sometimes your role is a counsellor’s one.”
Chissick says his main plans for his first term are moving offices in the City, transformation and lateral hire programmes and culture change, as well as using the first 100 days to conduct and implement a strategic review to improve profitability, provide leadership, improve communications and expand the international spread.
“I built the technology law group from scratch and grew it into one of the largest and profitable practice areas at FFW – I want to replicate that success across the whole firm,” he says. “The 40-something generation is now leading and taking the firm forward. I have a strong vision of where I want to take the firm, which is shared with Matthew [Lohn].”
British lawyer Steve Wardlaw took over from corporate partner Tony Higginson as partner in charge of US firm Baker Botts’ London office on 1 September last year, having been partner in charge at the firm’s Moscow office for the previous seven years. During that time Wardlaw oversaw a 10-fold growth of the Moscow office, “admittedly from a very low base”, quips the affable Wardlaw.
“Given the importance the firm attaches to growth in the London office it seemed logical to apply some of what I’d learned in Moscow to London,” Wardlaw adds. “It also gave me the opportunity to return to London and hopefully accomplish similar results to Moscow. I love a challenge.”
Wardlaw has some advice for the newbies on what is possible to achieve during the all-important first 100 days.
“It’s important to talk to everyone in the office and spend extra time with your fellow partners to explain clearly to them what the goals will be and how the group fits into the strategy,” says Wardlaw. “The first 100 days should be more about listening than acting.”
Wardlaw’s predecessor as London head, Higgingson, generously handed him a few tips on how to make things work as head man, including that it is important to have patience, and plenty of it.
“When developing a firm or an office everything takes longer than you’d like, but then again everything you do should help the firm develop even if, looking at snapshots of a month or so, nothing seems to have progressed,” says Wardlaw. “Keep building and if you can’t see results it may turn out that you were building valuable foundations instead. Keep your ear to the ground and be opportunistic.”
With his years of overseas experience, Wardlaw himself is able to offer a few tips on the thorny issue of how to open an office abroad.
“Be sure that it’s strategic and you understand why you’re opening, and the costs that are involved,” he stresses. “For example, nothing aggravates partners more than discovering a £2m investment is in fact an £8m investment. Also, be sure that, if you’re opening an office through a lateral hire, you maintain a strong link with the firm’s culture. Otherwise the offices could develop into personal fiefdoms that become almost impossible to control.”
Likewise, moving people on is a task that falls within the remit of the office head, and here Wardlaw can offer a few words of advice.
“Be honest, show empathy and don’t soft-soap the hard statements,” he suggests. “People hear what they want to hear and if you’re vague or woolly the lawyer or partner may simply mishear what you’re trying to say. If you’re dismissing someone you need to be sure they understand they are being dismissed and why.
“Finally, act on your gut instinct. A little like hiring, if it feels like the person is not going to work out then act on that instinct and move them on. You’ll be right nine times out of 10 and it saves a lot of heartache and potential damage to the business you have painstakingly built. Be decent, fair and polite about a dismissal, but sometimes you have to be ruthless. As the manager this is part of your role.”
When Peter Hasson joined Clyde & Co as finance director in 1997 he was a rare breed as a non-lawyer manager. Hasson is a chartered accountant who had been serving on the board of a mid-tier accountancy firm.
“I thought that all accountants were about 10 years ahead of law firms, so you could go quite a long way by imitating what they were doing,” he says of his early days in the legal market. “However, there are big differences in culture between law firms and accountants and that was my biggest learning curve – and how you get the best out of law firms.”
He points out that at the time law firms were operating at nowhere near the size and scale they are now, and nowhere near that of accountancy firms. Since he joined Clydes he says the firm has grown from 50 partners and £50m turnover to 300 partners and £330m turnover.
“Once you get to the size we are now”, he says, “you have to adopt new methods. Branding in the legal sector has become much more distinctive. Successful firms give a clear idea of what they are and what they’re not. As a result, firms are offering clearer services to clients than they were 10 years ago.”
As well as getting to grips with the nuances of law firm culture Hasson has led the firm through a transformative period of several mergers and group lateral hires. He says that doing a number of small mergers before embarking on the major tie-up with Barlow Lyde & Gilbert in November 2011 was the learning experience that made it work.
“My proudest achievement has been the growth and expansion of Clyde & Co over the period I’ve been here, and doing so with greater clarity in terms of what we’re trying to achieve,” he says. “There have been other highlights – the merger, expansion into new continents, the fact that international is now 40 per cent of the business – but when you sit back it’s the ability to pull it all together into a cohesive business.”
In Hasson’s opinion most managerial mistakes are just decisions that are unpopular within the firm and because the management changes so regularly, there is no chance to correct them. In contrast, Clydes has had one of the most stable management teams in the legal market, bringing solid benefits.
“Rapid management turnover means you can lose the lessons you’ve learned,” claims Hasson. “It’s not like that at Clydes. I’ve been here 17 years, so I get the chance to rectify the mistakes I’ve made.”
Head of Kingsley Napley’s family law practice Jane Keir was promoted to senior partner last month, succeeding longstanding senior partner Christopher Murray. The move makes Kingsley Napley the only top 100 firm with both a female managing partner (Linda Woolley) and a female senior partner.
Keir’s promotion reportedly left those within the firm buzzing, with the lawyer herself saying that the high number of female partners at the top of the firm’s hierarchy – 40 per cent equity partners and four out of seven on the management committee – has been hugely influential for junior lawyers used to working in a traditionally male-dominated profession.
Keir is also one of the few family lawyers to take up such a senior position, perhaps another reason why her promotion has been welcomed with such open arms.
Speaking to The Lawyer during her first day on the job, Keir was full of excitement. She said her role would be more “external looking” than the managing partner position held by Woolley, with Keir having a particular focus on BD, meaning strengthening client relationships and showcasing departments the firm is less well-known for, including immigration.
Becoming the fifth senior partner in the firm’s 75-year history is a major achievement, so what are her tips for communicating effectively? Listen more than you talk seems to be the key. Keir says she has had lunch or coffee with every partner at the firm to discuss what they want, and has since set up an internal blog for senior partners to voice concerns or share stories.
“You’ve got to be cautious as well as confident in this market,” she insists.
Keir seems to have the right idea.
David Stewart’s involvement in the management of Olswang dates back to 2007 when he was elected managing partner. Earlier this year he was re-elected to lead the firm for the next three years.
“I’ve had several rounds of ‘lessons learned’,” admits the ever-candid Stewart. “The biggest challenge has been dealing with the dramatic changes in the industry: the new opportunities created by the Clementi reforms and the economic downturn created an explosive combination for anyone managing the transition to a new professional landscape for lawyers.
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that law firms are not immune to the challenges of the corporate world – we must be more efficient, more specialised and unique in our proposition, work smarter and think strategically. There’s no escaping that. I tried to build this into my strategy for the firm and looked at new growth areas internationally, spearheaded a culture of real sector focus to make sure we continue to be leaders in our core industries, made sure our brand remains fresh and distinctive, and invest in BD and systems.”
One regret Stewart says he has is not addressing the firm’s governance structure earlier.
“Streamlining the decision-making process has always been a challenge in partnerships, but it can and must be done if we want the partnership to thrive in the new environment,” he says. “I was pleased to see the whole partnership involved in reviewing the way we govern ourselves and that we were successful in agreeing what works best for us in a collegiate manner.”
As for the future at Olswang and Stewart’s next three years, he says he is planning to change the organisation to empower sector leaders to take a more prominent strategic role in “crafting the future vision of our place in our core sectors and driving recruitment, investment, mergers and new office openings”.
“I want to make it even easier for us to work smarter as an international firm and I’ll promote better project management and pricing expertise through training and coaching,” he adds. “I’ll also continue to support the best practice in client relationship management; I’m keen on lowering costs and I’m looking at more outsourcing as one way forward; and I also want to make Olswang the place where we create the next generation of leaders. We’ll have full and substantial succession planning for every senior role.”
Stewart is going to have his hands full.
New Weightmans managing partner John Schorah admits his big plan for his term is to “first, get through it”. Assuming that happens, on his to-do list is ensuring the firm maintains a strong balance sheet and delivers on its three key strategic objectives, namely having the client at the heart of everything it does, enhancing the firm’s profile in its key markets and embarking on a business enablement programme through technology to be a leader in process, efficiencies and management information.
“I’d also like to see sustainable growth,” adds Schorah.
No sweat then.
During Schorah’s first 100 days the plan is to set priorities with the Weightmans board as to which issues need the most investment and focus, set out a roadmap for the new agenda, have a successful AGM with all partners in June and develop the leadership programme for key stakeholders around business planning.
Clearly, Schorah has a lot on his plate, but he believes his experience as a corporate finance lawyer and in a managerial role with a public company outside of the law offers a perspective that may help the firm. Plus, he is clearly adaptable.
“I came to Weightmans to develop a corporate practice, then I joined the board to build a wider commercial practice – becoming managing partner was something I saw as the next part of that journey,” he says.
Nabarro’s Graham Stedman, who replaced Simon Johnston as senior partner on 3 January, says he wanted to be senior partner because he is “an entrepreneur at heart”.
“I’ve learned a lot from the fast-growth businesses I’ve advised over the years,” adds Stedman. “Leading a business of talented people and supporting them to achieve success is something I’ve wanted to do.”
Stedman’s vision for Nabarro is “for the firm to be recognised for its culture, entrepreneurial edge and innovative use of technology”.
“I also expect us to continue to improve our financial performance, focus on profitability and extend our reach internationally,” he adds, quipping that already one of the biggest challenges to that ambition is his “diary and time”.
Still, at least he’s not on his own.
“Everyone needs an Andrew Inkester,” jokes Stedman, of Nabarro’s managing partner.
Advice from an outgoing managing partner: Weightmans’ Paddy Gaul
What lessons did you learn during your term of office?
The joy of the job is its multi-disciplinary nature: finance, people, clients, technology and so on, so I was learning from first to last. About halfway through I learned what strategy was. A little after that I learned the importance of client relationship management. Towards the end I learned you can never know everything about people because they constantly surprise you in so many ways, good and bad.
What do you wish you’d known when you took on the job?
I wish I’d known that things which are worth doing or having take a long time. If I’d known that I would have planned better and managed expectations better, including my own. I would then have had a proper appreciation of medium- to long-term strategy and had a clearer vision of where I wanted us to be and what I wanted the firm to achieve. I’d have had a firmer grasp of the principles of building a business.
What would you have done differently?
I’d have put in place a much more rigorous culture around how we do things so we would have been less knee-jerk/stop-start/two steps forward, one step back in our approach. I’d have put in place deeper foundations in terms of key strategic issues. Throughout my time I was too laissez-faire.
What are you most proud of from your term of office?
Looking back over the past 10 years enables you to see the transformation in the business, the number and quality of the people at the firm, the client base and the office environment, and it’s difficult to pick out one aspect that makes me most proud.
I suppose what I’m saying is that although I’m conscious that management is achieved through the efforts of others, rightly or wrongly many people associate the tangible improvements in the firm with my tenure as managing partner. In the firm’s very long history I think most people would say that the past 10 years have been an interesting, rewarding and beneficial phase. That makes me proud.
What are you most looking forward to now you’re no longer in management?
The fundamental part of the managing partner job spec is to worry about everyone and everything because even in a large and complicated organisation you have some part in practically everything. In a sense I’m passing on these worries to John.
You’re continuously accountable for the firm’s risks, debts, reputation, the livelihoods of 1,250 people and so on. Nobody else has that and it’s a considerable burden that will be a ‘nice not to have’.