Roadrunner

McDermotts senior partner William Charnley still intends to pursue his original full-service UK firm ideal, but that US work is just too tempting…


William Charnley, senior partner at McDermott Will & Emery’s London office, enters the room in a whirl of energy. Striding straight over to get himself a glass of water and a piece of shortcake, he proceeds to tell me at bewildering speed how he has just been involved in “litigating”.

Something about a case that McDermotts wanted to fight but the client was probably going to settle – but to be honest, the details escaped me in a blur of words. As Charnley is a securities man by choice, litigation is something of a novelty.

He doesn’t really pause for breath at all during the interview apart from once, which I will come to later.
All this hyperactivity (a past colleague describes him as “like Roadrunner on speed”) may explain why he initially considered doing this interview on a day when he was supposed to be moving house. Not wanting him to be torn limb from limb by his wife Kathy Mylrea, who is head of environmental law at Simmons & Simmons, I hastily suggested that we should move our meeting forward.

The motive behind the chat was the recent acquisition by McDermotts of US securities lawyer Paul Mitchell from Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison. His move is unusual in that he will become the first US lawyer at the office, although it does already have a small handful of dual-qualified UK lawyers.

When McDermotts set up in London two and a half years ago, it was with UK lawyers, including ex-Simmons lawyer Charnley. The intention was to build a full-service UK practice rather than going down the same route as other US firms, with UK lawyers on the periphery of a solid US core.
Or alternatively, to choose one area of UK law to the exclusion of all others.

So why has McDermotts and Charnley decided to take on US lawyers now? “When we started off in London, what we said we were going to do initially was to build a full-service UK law firm and not look at a US capability,” says Charnley, stressing the ‘initially’ so that the move cannot in any way be interpreted as a U-turn. He adds that he has been handling a lot of US work anyway, but it has been routed through the US offices rather than sourced through London.

I press him on what has made July 2001 a better time to take on US capability than other months. First, Charnley explains that there is – guess what – a client demand; and second, that if a client asks the firm a US law question first thing in the morning, the London office is unable to ask the US lawyers until later that day. That’ll be the time difference then.

Another prod and Charnley explains that the market conditions are right for recruiting at the moment because some lawyers have less work on and so are more likely to jump ship.

“It so happens that over the last few months we’ve seen a lot of quality CVs with deal sheets that show they’ve been doing work in London and Europe in high-yield work rather than just section 144A [New York Stock Exchange-linked] transactions,” says Charnley. “It’s been a lot of circumstances coming together.”

While other firms may have seen a drop in work, Charnley states that McDermotts is doing okay. “The one thing you’ll find with McDermotts is that it’s a broad firm, as a result of which it does well in good times and does well in bad times,” he says. “But by the nature of its practice, it will never do exceptionally well in a bull market where capital transactions are happening day in, day out. That’s a small part of our practice.”

In taking on Mitchell, Charnley says that he was looking to broaden out a domestic-based securities practice into an international one, so moving across a McDermotts lawyer from the US was not necessarily the logical step. “In addition,” says Charnley, “they [the McDermotts lawyers] are very well entrenched and unlikely to move across here.”

After continual sniping from the London market for the last two years that McDermotts had bitten off more than it could chew by taking on high-profile (and expensive) lawyers before it had work on the table, the firm has now gained more respect. This is in large part down to Charnley, who is described by everyone I speak to as “driven”. He himself tells me that he probably puts in about 4,500 hours a year.
For those of you who are arthimetically challenged, that’s about 86 hours a week.

For some, that drive has proved difficult to deal with. One source who wished to remain anonymous says of
Charnley: “He’s a complex character. He’s a good lawyer, which often gets overlooked amid the bullshit. William thrives in an environment where he is the fellow, and that’s very important for him. He has drive, ambition and a relentless pursuit of success. The downside is the smell of burnt fingers that leaves.”

However, Ian Coles of Mayer Brown & Platt, who says he has got to know Charnley through the two of them being boys from the North in charge of US law firms in London, says that he has nothing bad to say about him at all, calling him a great guy to have around. Which just proves that you can’t please all the people all of the time, and maybe Charnley’s exclusion from the old boys’ network has jangled a few nerves.

Now here’s a curious thing: Charnley seems to be getting more northern by the minute. He starts off with an accent that is neutral with just a tinge of Lancashire, but the Lancashire part slowly takes over. But Charnley is not particularly keen to talk about his background. He tells me that he decided to become a lawyer after attending a planning case that was brought by his father and grandfather, who were in business together. After observing the court, the teenage Charnley decided to become a barrister, later deciding in favour of becoming a solicitor because of the greater client contact that the latter provided at the time.

When I enquire as to what his father’s business was, Charnley stops. This is his longest pause for breath in the interview.

He laughs and says that “someone” advised him not to tell The Lawyer what the business was. Now my imagination is running riot and there’s no way I’m leaving the office without finding out. “Not many people know this,” he eventually admits, “but it was a pickle manufacturing business.”

I am puzzled as to why Charnley had difficulties owning up to this, so I ask. “Well, it’s not like being a lawyer, it’s a traditional food business,” shrugs Charnley.
Now, if he put the right spin on this, Charnley could claim to have a greater understanding of clients’ needs, having grown up in that environment.

Looking forward, Charnley is hoping for the time when the office is bedded down sufficiently so that he can spend more time at home with his family – toddler Piers and three-week-old Henrietta. Then Piers can cease his weekend visits into the office when he searches for files to scribble on.
Fortunately, to date, Charnley has managed to spot all the defaced documents before presenting them to clients.
William Charnley
Senior partner
McDermott Will & Emery