Softly spoken, unassuming and down to earth. These are not the qualities one would normally associate with a City professional, but then Martin Bartlam, Jones Day Reavis & Pogue’s new finance partner, is not your average lawyer.
Bartlam is only one of a few senior players who have successfully made the jump from lawyer to banker, in his case to Crédit Lyonnais. There are very few other examples, the obvious being Robert Palache, a former Clifford Chance banking partner who left for Nomura in 1998 after being at the firm for 18 years. But Bartlam is probably the first of his kind to return to practising law.
He treats the whole thing with an air of nonchalance, but then he can afford to, since even his clients, which include NatWest, were willing to hang on for the day when he returned to private practice.
Bartlam says: “I kept in touch with some of my clients, often in circumstances when there were bank-to-bank deals. But I think that some of my former clients were happy with me going back to law in that we’d be together again.”
It seems that Bartlam cannot believe that he is so obviously appreciated for doing a job which he so obviously enjoys.
Explaining why he went into law in the first place, he says: “I suppose if I’m honest, I came from a fairly poor background. The law was something that would enable me not to escape so much, but it seemed to be a prestigious profession, full of respect and with the potential for anyone to take part.”
If all this sounds too good to be true, then you should be ashamed of yourself for being so cynical. James Johnson, a banking partner at Clifford Chance who practised with Bartlam at Wilde Sapte, says: “There’s no ‘sides’ to Martin at all. What you see is what you get. He’s very deal-led, very enthusiastic and has tons of energy.”
And it is true that while Bartlam remains refreshingly open, he is also very ambitious and driven, as his career to date shows since it began at Slaughter and May in 1987.
A spell at Slaughters is guaranteed to have any young lawyer shaking in their handmade leather loafers, but Bartlam took the whole experience in his stride. “I was very pleased to go to Slaughter and May,” he says. “At that time it was the leading law firm for complex financing.”
His love of complicated structuring was born from his first seat under the watchful eye of capital markets expert Nick Wilson. “You actually have to be quite creative,” says Bartlam. “You do have to go through a lot of documents but you have to be creative in the transaction and in the facilitation of its completion.”
Just two years after qualifying in 1989, Bartlam had the nerve to suggest that a spell at the firm’s Hong Kong office might do him good. He says: “It was the challenge of working in a different environment. It was a boom time in the Far East and it was exciting to go out and sample the life there.”
How much “life” he actually sampled is debatable, as Bartlam was handed a crippling workload, juggling advising on the refinancing of the Wah Kwong shipping fleet with working on the reverse takeover of Bangkok Land. “It meant working through the night on and off for 10 days,” he wistfully recalls.
But in 1993 it was time to return to the UK, and he remained at Slaughters for just one more year before opting to follow four finance and tax assistants to Wilde Sapte in 1994. He says: “I had friends in other firms and I decided that I wanted a change from Slaughters. I wanted to concentrate on complex financing structures and I felt that I had more control over which direction I wanted to go in at the new firm than at Slaughters.”
At the beginning of his four years at Wilde Sapte, Bartlam was able to sample the delights of working in-house when he was sent on a 15-month secondment to NatWest, where he worked with a 30-strong team in structured finance.
Bartlam saw it as a chance to hone his skills in a number of areas while learning a few new tricks along the way. “It was actually challenging going from being a lawyer to being in a pure banking role, and I felt that I was doing a lot of structuring work,” he says.
After returning to Wilde Sapte, Bartlam became a partner in 1996. But within two years a chance meeting with the head of structured finance when Bartlam was chairing a conference on project bonds led to his move to Crédit Lyonnais.
Bartlam says: “It took me about six months to come to a decision. People were very supportive. A lot of people knew me as a commercial lawyer and were more surprised at the move than others.”
At the bank, Bartlam headed a three-strong team in the structured products group. He stayed with the bank for only two years, however, but he says that he was able to add to his repertoire while building on his knowledge of tax-based structuring.
Commenting on his reasons for leaving, Bartlam is quick to assert that he wanted to go back to being a professional. But he also speaks with some irritation about the group’s move to Paris, which meant spending a substantial amount of time in France each week. “Banks have reorganisations every week,” he quips.
And so back to law. As to why the firm is taking on Bartlam, its London partner in charge Robert Thomson says that he will bring skills that the office does not have at the moment. Bartlam’s portfolio is wide-ranging and includes debt and capital markets work and tax restructuring.
But, citing one of the main reasons that he wants to return to law, Bartlam says: “I’ve always believed that a lawyer has to be creative, partly because it’s more competitive and partly because the environment we work in is more transparent.”
However, while Bartlam is getting back to the joys of partnership after a two-year absence, he casually remarks that he might be meeting a representative of the UK Government in the week.
This is in connection with his role as lead financier on a finance liaison group, set up to advise on the UK Trading Emissions Scheme in connection with agreements by governments on a worldwide basis to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases to the levels agreed under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Bartlam is also involved with the Emissions Market Development Group. The group was set up with companies that included Swiss Re and Arthur Andersen and aims to examine the emissions issue from an international perspective. “It’s important from a social perspective and it’s extremely challenging from a financial point of view,” says Bartlam.
But his main priority at the moment is to get back to the thing he enjoys more than anything else – structuring deals so complicated that it would make your head spin.
“I think people see it as something staid and static, but I’m glad to be back in law,” he smiles.