Watson Burton forced to rewrite script as Hoyle exits stage left

“O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason.”

Watson Burton forced to rewrite script as Hoyle exits stage left” />”O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason.”

Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II

It is not often that The Lawyer has good cause to refer to the Bard, but this week’s events at Watson Burton are surely the best we have ever had. And the similarities with Shakespeare’s greatest history play are simply too choice to ignore.

Like Caesar with Rome, Watson Burton managing partner Andrew Hoyle guided the firm to greatness and power. And, as with Caesar and the senators, there was tension between Hoyle and the equity partners over his ravenous ambition. And as with Caesar’s murder, Hoyle was ultimately brought down by the very people who gained most from his leadership.

Pompous literary references aside, Hoyle’s ousting has stunned the legal world. Under a decade of his guidance Watson Burton has risen from a relative minnow operating from a single base in Newcastle to a £22m empire with offices in Tyneside, Leeds and the capital.

And while Hoyle has been amply rewarded for his success (his take-home pay of £850,000 in the financial year 2005-06 made him the best-paid lawyer in Newcastle), the rest of the equity partnership has had little to be jealous of, bagging an average of £712,000 apiece.

But the scarcity of those equity partners is key to the whole furore. As rivals are quick to point out, the tightness of Watson Burton’s seven-member equity was crucial to that blockbusting profit per equity partner figure: fewer sharers means bigger shares. But that same tightness left the group vulnerable to implosion.

In an average-sized equity group, an unruly partner can be a headache for the boss, but never a terminal illness. Yet in a group of just six a single dissenter has the critical mass to unseat his managing partner. Although the firm refuses to comment further, the official line is that Hoyle’s departure was a voluntary and amicable one. Despite the best of its efforts and to its very great regret, it maintains that Hoyle was implacable in his decision to quit if differences of opinion could not be resolved.

Even Hoyle himself is on-message, commenting only that the decision was his own and that it resulted from irreconcilable differences between himself and (some of) the partners.

But call it what you will: when partners do not back the managing partner, it is the start of a coup. Some partners were just not comfortable with the speed of change.

As the dust settles two main questions emerge: what will happen to Watson Burton? And who will fill Hoyle’s shoes?
To answer the first of these, it is worth noting that the firm made much of its fortune in the past five years on a legacy of personal injury (PI) work from Tyneside’s miners, in particular sufferers of the ‘vibration white finger’ industrial disease.

But as that workstream dries up, with miners having either won their cases or given up trying, the firm needs a new mainstay.

Although offering a full-service firm, Watson Burton’s mostly corporate small and medium-sized enterprise clients are too small to fill the PI gap. Its best hope is its construction and engineering group.

With nearly 40 specialist lawyers, the team is already the firm’s largest and most lucrative. Two of the firm’s seven equity partners, Rob Langley and Lawrence Bruce, are members, and construction is the basis of the London operation.

Which just leaves the question of Hoyle’s successor. And with just six possible candidates, there are good odds on a bet.

Langley is the favourite. He is head of the all-important construction group. Equally relevant is that he has been at Watson Burton since 1981, longer than any other partner – including Hoyle – giving him unrivalled prestige and status in the firm.

The remaining candidates – Bruce, Roddy Gordon, Gillian Hall, Allen Henderson and Phillip Jordan – simply lack Langley’s construction head status, time served and, frankly, his sheer pugnacity.

All hail the new emperor.