After Nineham: what the future holds for Lovells’ corporate dept

After the departure of Nineham, is Lovells a wounded animal?

After the departure of Nineham, is Lovells a wounded animal?It would be easy to say that, without Hugh Nineham, Lovells’ corporate practice will fall apart, just as it has been easy for the firm to spin his departure as an alteration of factored-in retirement plans.

Nineham’s decision to ditch retirement in favour of partnership at US firm McDermott Will & Emery has come as a shock, not least to his colleagues at Lovells, where he has worked for the past 33 years.

Although his name has been synonymous with the firm’s corporate practice for years, to paint his departure as the final nail in the group’s coffin is wrong for two reasons. First, if the corporate practice has been faltering for the past several years it has been doing so with Nineham well and truly on board. Second, Nineham is leaving at a time when the practice has reached a position of arguable strength.

Yes, the corporate practice lacks the profile it did at the beginning of the decade and the firm has been absent from the leaderboard on Mergermarket’s deals tables for at least the last three years.

That said, recent instructions are not to be sniffed at. Last summer the firm acted for the government of Singapore’s investment arm Temasek Holdings on a £2.5bn investment in Barclays and more recently won a role on the biggest mining deal to hit the market in years. Admittedly Lovells is not advising either Rio Tinto or BHP Billiton on the latter’s £50bn approach, with those roles having gone to Linklaters and Slaughter and May respectively, but it is advising BHP’s financial adviser JPMorgan.

Added to that are high-profile instructions – and in this game it is the high-profile ones that can count most – from ITV (on its acquisition of 12 Yard Productions), H Bauer Publishing (on the £1.14bn acquisition of Emap’s consumer magazine and commercial radio station divisions) and longstanding client Umbro (on an approach from Nike). The firm has also been instructed on a number of high-value deals for usual clients such as SABMiller, Prudential and Equitable Life.

Nineham’s name was only associated with the Temasek deal, which closed last July, with partners such as Nigel Read and Nicola Evans taking on a greater share of the lead roles.

Andrew Skipper, head of the corporate stream at the firm, admits that Nineham’s loss means a greater amount of time will have to be spent tending client relationships.

“We’re talking to them and presenting them with solutions,” he says. “We have client teams that go across the firm, so most clients will know a number of people here. Obviously Hugh was a senior partner and the relationship partner for a number of clients, but he always made sure there were other people known to the clients.”

The underdog of the corporate practice has to be the private equity group. The jewel in the department’s crown before star partners Oliver Felsenstein and Marco Compagnoni left in 2005 and 2006 respectively, the private equity practice has been struggling to break back into the market under the three-partner team of Alan Greenough, Tom Whelan and Steven Bryan.

Greenough, who joined from White & Case in October 2006, says: “It’s early days for us and we’re still forging relationships. We did quite well with corporates like Ramsay Health Care and Liberty Global last year.”

That said, the team has yet to win any private equity houses as clients and, tellingly, Greenough admits that joining the firm was “not the easiest thing I’ve ever done”.

Crucially, though, Nineham had very little involvement with the private equity practice, so its woes are unrelated to his departure.

In a sense, to defend Lovells post-Nineham is to do it down while he was still there. His stature and reputation as a lawyer are undeniable, but compared to its own history the firm’s corporate department has been in decline for several years – years during which Nineham had given up management duties to focus entirely on client-facing activities.

To suggest the practice will fall apart without him is as inaccurate as to suggest that he had gone to seed during his twilight years with the firm.

Will Lovells’ corporate practice implode without Nineham? Unlikely. The firm is down and will need to work particularly hard to pick itself up again on a reputational level, but it is certainly not out.