Smokin’

Paul Lee, senior partner at Addleshaw Booth & Co, hit the headlines last week following his decision to move down from the firm’s northern heartland and operate out of its infant London office. At just three years old, Addleshaws’ London office has an annual turnover of £11m and is funnelling profits back to base. To aid development – swelling both fee-earner and client numbers – it was decided that Lee’s ebullient personality would do the trick.

He says: “I’ve a view about where we want to get to and I think I can enthuse and encourage people to share that vision. When I was thinking about my most recent re-election as senior partner and what I was going to try and achieve in the next few years, it did seem to me that there was more that I could probably achieve in London than there was in Manchester. They’ve heard all my jokes in Manchester. In fact they’ve heard all my jokes more than once. Now London is the big challenge for us.”

Lee is Manchester born and bred. “I’m a Mancunian and I absolutely love the place,” he says, but the Gallagher brothers he ain’t. He is urbane and charming in a slightly unnerving Nicholas Parsons sort of way. He has that ability, so often employed by politicians, to deflect questions and direct a conversation without seeming to do so.

London suits his ‘man of letters’ style and Lee has not been shy to dive right in. He has taken up residence near the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern, affording him the opportunity to amble along the former ‘wobbly’ bridge as he strolls to work. It also means that he can see the office from his home and vice versa. This proximity to the office might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for Lee it serves as a reminder that there are two very definite sides to his life. “I do work quite hard and I do put a lot into this business and my professional life, but I do equally try to stop at the weekends and have that time for either the arts things that I do, or with my family. That’s the balance that I struck in my own mind 15 or 20 years ago.”

Lee has situated his London pad amid the cultural centre of the South Bank. He is chairman of the Royal Exchange Theatre Company, is on the boards of the Northern Ballet Theatre and the Royal Northern College of Music, and is chairman of the board of Governors of Chetham’s School of Music. “I just absolutely adore them. I’m really into the arts, in the sense that I think it’s very broadening to individuals to have exposure to people who are in completely different fields of life,” he says.

He may not be Richard Burton, but Lee is married to his own Elizabeth Taylor, managing partner of Manchester firm James Chapman & Co, and the whole family is a fan of James Chapman’s most famous local client, Manchester United Football Club. When Lee is not patronising the arts, he can be found cheering on his team from the terraces of Old Trafford.

Given the volume of his extra-curricular activities, it is a surprise that Lee still finds time to be senior partner of a national firm. He does little fee-earning, preferring to concentrate on strategy, recruiting and getting out and about with clients. “I sit on the boards of several companies, such as the Yorkshire Building Society, some venture capital trusts and some other companies, so that’s in a sense my replacement for fee-earning work. I don’t do very much fee-earning work.”

But just to reassure Addleshaws’ partners, he does claim to work very hard. “My move here isn’t to strengthen the fee-earning base. The lawyers here are much better lawyers than I am, but I do believe that I can contribute to the growth of this office through my client connections,” he says.

He acknowledges that taking on the competitive London market is no easy task. “It’s more complex down here because in no way at all do we have undisputed leadership in any sector, but we have very strong practice areas and we have a clear plan and we have ambition. A key element of that is being here and making this office grow and really being stronger in its chosen market sectors. We want to be in the mid-market sector.”

And to make headway in London, Lee believes he has to be there. What’s in it for Manchester, though, besides avoiding further repetitions of his jokes? Surely there could be tensions between the offices if London gets a higher proportion of the firm’s resources. He says: “Leeds and Manchester are both very mature markets and our position in Leeds and Manchester is enormously strong. Our position in London will be much stronger than it is. Undoubtedly, the priority investment going forward is for here.” Take that, Manchester.

But while London bathes in the golden glow of being centre of attention, some members of the Addleshaws team are surplus to requirements. In May, 11 partners faced the chop. Lee is simultaneously bullish and defensive about the decision. “We lost 11 partners,” he says. “I know an awful lot of other firms which are losing an awful lot more than 11 partners. Eleven partners out of 120 – being less than 10 per cent – is nothing particularly outstanding. Of course there is speculation and I can’t stop the speculation and I don’t really care if it exists or not.”
I’m not sure if he is trying to convince me or himself, but he is definitely embarking on a morale-boosting monologue.

He continues: “In relation to the partners that are leaving, it matters to me massively that they believe we’ve dealt with them professionally, fairly, generously, sensitively and supportively. I truly care far less what people write about us than what we actually do.”

Lee is hoping that the publicity garnered by its sponsorship of the Commonwealth games will have a knock-on effect for its London office. “In a sense, launching the next stage of our development down here on the back of that has been pretty well timed really.”

He adds: “Nobody can get branding exposure like that ever again. I mean, a million people watched it, hundreds of thousands of people came to Manchester. We do quite a bit of work for National Australia Bank and, of course, they watched the Games in Australia, because they were watching their swimmers and their athletes. It was good that they saw Addleshaw Booth plastered all over the place. We were quite well positioned, between Microsoft and Imperial Leather – not wholly unknown names.” And Lee’s own status was accidentally aggrandised when he was introduced as the Lord Mayor of Melbourne during a medal ceremony.

A City practice is fundamental to Addleshaws’ future, which Lee acknowledges could include a transatlantic merger among a number of other strategic possibilities. He argues that at this stage in the firm’s evolution, it is foolhardy to be prescriptive about how to expand the London office. He cites multidisciplinary partnerships as one example of a business model heralded as the future that has, in less than five years, fallen out of fashion. He is taking things one step at a time, a lesson he learned early on in his career.

Lee always wanted to be a lawyer, although his path to the upper echelons of Addleshaws was almost blocked at the start of his legal career. He applied to complete his articles at what was then Addleshaw Sons & Latham, only to be refused. Fate stepped in and on completion of his training at a different firm, he discovered there was no job for him to move into upon qualification. It was back to plan A, and this time, Addleshaws was more welcoming, ultimately making him a partner at the tender age of 26. He has been there ever since, shaping a regional firm into one of the UK’s more ambitious national players. London should look out, because Lee is on the loose.
Paul Lee
Senior partner
Addleshaw Booth & Co