Firm conviction

In a world where parner loyalty is fading fast, SJ Berwin senior partner David Harrel is a rarity indeed. Kathryn Hobbs meets the ‘face’ of the firm


SJ Berwin senior partner David Harrel’s reputation precedes him. According to any number of sources, the chain-smoking long-term head honcho is a force to be reckoned with. A founding partner of the firm, Harrel has been ensconced at the top of SJ Berwin for a decade. He is synonymous with an energetic firmwide ethos that has taken SJ Berwin from legal minnow in 1982 to high-profit corporate shark. He is, in fact, a charming, self-deprecating individual, and during the interview there was – disappointingly – not a cigarette in sight.

A few days before the interview, the Harrel family moved house. Despite this being one of the most stressful things a person can do in their life, Harrel exudes calm and has already unpacked. I guess if you have taken a law firm through its wilderness years and come out even brasher than before, you can take swapping homes in your stride. I also guess that, with top of equity profits per partner at £900,000 or so, you can enlist a few professionals to assist with those mundane moving tasks.

In keeping with SJ Berwin’s reputation – variously described as pushy, aggressive and hungry – Harrel has been quoted as saying: “We’re very keen on making money.” But rather surprisingly, Harrel is relaxed and ready to chat.

It is difficult to picture him, as he describes himself, sweating after new business as the firm sought to impress itself on the 1980s market. He says the firm was founded on hard work mixed with fun, although it sounds like a masochistic version of fun. If you worked for the firm then, you were not allowed to go home until you had acknowledged every letter and returned every call.

SJ Berwin’s rapid progress was temporarily halted by the death of founding father Stanley Berwin in 1988. Everybody in the firm felt the loss and Harrel said he found it particularly hard because Berwin was just 62 and enjoying seeing his firm blossom. “I think everybody thought that this rather brash new outfit was about to disappear because the founding name had gone. But it was too good a thing to let go,” muses Harrel.

The firm plodded on, but as Harrel acknowledges, the next few years were problematic. “If you look at cycles of life, we were born in ’82 and grew up very quickly. I think we were having a sort of teenage revolt in ’92,” he reflects.

Christopher Haan became senior partner, but after four years he and partner Peter Simpson split acrimoniously from the firm and joined Coudert Brothers. The recession began to bite and somebody had to step up and take charge of the situation. “I do feel that the firm is quite resilient,” says Harrel. “It has a need to prove itself and everyone in it needs to prove themselves.”

Harrel had something to prove. It was the same restless spirit that has caused him to move house around seven times over the past 15 years that originally took him to SJ Berwin. Until then, he had almost been gifted his legal career. His grandfather had been president of the Scottish Law Society and the old school tie network worked overtime to ensure that he became a youthful partner at William Charles Crocker. Harrel says he quit to see how far he could get on his own. The results speak for themselves and the man in front of me seems content with his achievements.

It is difficult to reconcile Harrel’s picture of an ambitious young lawyer with the paragon of urbanity I am chatting to. Perhaps success has smoothed off his edges, because Harrel gives every appearance of being part of the establishment he used to revile. It is probably my prejudices that find it hard to imagine this nicely-spoken, well-turned-out former public schoolboy as a money-hungry litigation fiend. Even Harrel’s cases have climbed the social ladder. He keeps his hand in with fee-earning, but talks about choice clients. Harrel has, among others, acted for the Sultan of Brunei.

Harrel’s legal connections do not end with his grandfather. Considering SJ Berwin’s status as the mid-tier firm of choice for a number of US suitors, it is ironic that Harrel is the man with the Fried Frank connections. His uncle is none other than the Fried in Fried Frank.

Ten years after helping to start SJ Berwin, Harrel became its senior partner. He argues: “Senior partner was not a job you volunteered for, but I did think it was important. I felt I owed it to Stanley because, without him, I wouldn’t have achieved anything like I’ve achieved.” Harrel has remained in the role and seems content to continue. He has devolved some of the daily responsibilities to new managing partner Ralph Cohen and now focuses on being the ‘face’ of SJ Berwin. He’s no supermodel, but he’ll do.
So why he has remained as senior partner for so long?

Harrel says: “This place gets under your skin and you feel passionate about it. And there’s so much to do.” Harrel’s passion for SJ Berwin is undeniable. He continues, warming to his theme: “It’s somewhere that prizes individuals. My role is to enable all this energy to go in the right direction. I build conciliation, and when I took over that’s what the firm needed.”

Under Harrel’s eye, his firm has continued to grow and is fast establishing itself as a player throughout Europe. SJ Berwin has offices in Brussels, Germany, Madrid and Paris. He describes the firm’s European strategy as finding individuals that SJ Berwin works well with in a particular jurisdiction and asking them if they would like to start a new adventure. “That, culturally, is right in our roots, because it’s what we did,” he explains, before adding: “Our success makes finding the next jurisdiction and the right person there that much more difficult.” Italy is the next obvious location for SJ Berwin.

Harrel actually test ran this expansion strategy with a short-lived venture in Bratislava. A young lady, whose name Harrel could not recall but who was “not only a fantastic lawyer, she was also incredibly beautiful”, had worked with SJ Berwin in London. On returning to Bratislava, she opened a small office under the SJ Berwin brand and started work.

Harrel reminisces: “We had every single major company that ever went to Bratislava. None of them would come to us in London, but they came to us in Bratislava. It was a wonderful formula. I thought this should be our international formula from now on – that we should have these wonderful women open up in strange places.”

It all sounds highly dubious to me, but I suspect he has his tongue firmly wedged in his cheek. The office closed when the lady in question swapped firms, but the office had returned a profit and SJ Berwin had its model for overseas expansion, although Harrel dropped the attractive young lady requirement.

Not that all of SJ Berwin’s European operations began so smoothly. In anticipation of the official opening of its Madrid office, Harrel prepared a few words in Spanish. He had lived briefly in Chile and knew he must have linguistic ability lurking in him somewhere. He practised, memorised his speech, gesticulated and was finally ready. “We had 500 people there,” he recalls. “About a hundred people turned to listen. Four hundred people looked upon it as a competition to talk louder because I was now intruding. It was the last time I gave a speech in Spanish in Spain.”

Harrel does not have much luck with public speaking. At the firm’s summer party last year, he received a juicy smacker on the lips from an amorous assistant dressed as a fish midway through his speech.

“This energy that’s in the place is enormously creative, but has destructive possibilities too,” says Harrel. “There could have been difficulties from people building their own empires. I think if I have had an influence, it’s to make that come together and make it feel like one firm.” Harrel is a curious blend – both a product of and a shaping force for his firm. Perhaps this is why he can remain at SJ Berwin for so long but move house every couple of years. It might also explain how he can spend two hours talking about the firm – loquacious just doesn’t cover it. “I think it’s very different being part of something you helped start. I think we’ve now become a firm that people reckon with, and that surprises me,” he reveals.

Now that SJ Berwin is no longer the upstart sticking two fingers up at the establishment, but is instead part of that establishment, Harrel has to ditch the surprise and decide how to take the firm into its next growth phase. I think it’s time for a cigarette.
David Harrel
Senior partner
SJ Berwin