The temperature is up in the high 20s, and following a deeply unpleasant ride in the steaming sweathole that is the Jubilee Line, the cool of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom’s Canary Wharf office is a godsend. I am here to meet the enigmatic Bruce Buck, partner in charge of Skadden’s European offices. Buck is a man with no need for air-conditioning – he would keep his cool in a sauna.
Buck has squeezed me in for an interview, between conference calls and client meetings. After a period of quiet, Skadden’s London office is working all-out on an M&A deal, of which Buck can tell me nothing. While I have become flustered just travelling to see him, he has been juggling 14 things at once and seems more than able to do so. The only outward indication that he has stepped up a gear is that he is in shirt sleeves.
Buck is a mystery man. He has gone to the trouble of slotting the interview in, but is reluctant to be drawn into a discussion of himself. “I don’t have a personal life,” he says. “Isn’t that the reputation that Skadden Arps lawyers have?” What does he do with this non-existent personal life? “Nothing. I don’t want to talk about my personal life. It’s not very interesting.”
If Mohammed will not go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed. So, after a little digging around, I am informed that, on Sundays, Buck and family can be found on the Edgware Road enjoying Lebanese food. Hardly an exposé, but that seems to be all that is known about him. He is dry to the point of a drought and parries questions with a dismissive drollness.
Two things elicit more of a response – London and Skadden. “I always wanted to come to London. From my first day as a lawyer, I always wanted to come over here. It just seemed like something different and interesting,” he divulges. He started his career in 1970 with White & Case, moving to the firm’s London office in 1983. He had long wanted to work in Europe, but at that time the overseas offices of US firms were still comparatively small and opportunities were few and far between.
He continues: “When I was a young associate I didn’t get the chance. But when I became a partner I lobbied to go to a foreign office. I wanted to come to London, but then of course it was a little dangerous because you could raise your hand and find yourself in Ankara, Jakarta or a lot of other places.” Fate smiled on him and instead of relocating to Outer Mongolia, Buck moved to London.
He does not really explain why he found the idea of London so appealing. Perhaps the pioneer spirit was in him. He certainly responded to Skadden’s offer that he start its London office from nothing. The thought of returning to the US was sufficiently unappealing for Buck to consider looking beyond the firm he had been working at for nearly 20 years.
He argues that the move was not part of a career masterplan. “You know, when you’re a lawyer – at least in my experience – you live one day to the next,” he discloses. “You work hard on a transaction. There’s a closing; and then the next day another pile of papers lands on your desk. I’ve never really thought about my career very much at all except when I left White & Case to join Skadden Arps.
“Everything had been sort of day to day; and then all of a sudden I had this decision to make. I was quite happy at White & Case, but then this opportunity came along and I guess you can say it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. For a firm like this to not have anything in Europe and you can be the first person to start it. That was really the only big decision I’ve made in my career, and I anguished over it.”
Big decision indeed. It may not have evolved fully into the corporate powerhouse it has since become, but in the late 1980s Skadden was hardly small fry. It was the largest US firm not yet in Europe and had the challenge of catching up. Meanwhile, Buck was wondering whether he would be able to remain in London with White & Case, and if not, what his options would be. Somehow the two came together and Skadden’s London office was born.
US firms had a reputation for squeezing every drop of billable time out of their lawyers, and Skadden was widely regarded as one of the hardest places to work. Aggression and drive were its watchwords. When quizzed as to whether his personality blends well with the pushy spirit pervading Skadden, Buck offers this observation: “Nothing is a natural fit with my personality, because my personality is grumpy. There aren’t too many cultures that fit with that.” This curmudgeonly Walter Matthau persona won’t wash with me. Taciturn, yes, but not grumpy.
“Skadden Arps lawyers, due to the influence of [founding partner] Joe Flom, are a bit more proactive in terms of client development and deal execution,” considers Buck. “Perhaps this is because, in a certain sense, Skadden Arps is an upstart as compared with the traditional US firms that have been around since the turn of the century.
We started up in 1948, so in the 1970s and ’80s we were still a relative upstart. Skadden Arps had to, and has to, prove itself every day.”
How, then, did a White & Case lawyer stamp his authority on an office of Skadden lawyers? “Management’s a funny thing. I mean, I’m supposed to be in charge here, but really no one listens to me, so it’s a matter of cajoling people into doing things for the greater good,” he muses. “And I think by and large people want to do things for the greater good, because the firm has a culture and most people are attuned to that culture.”
Buck operates a hands-off management style, making decisions and leading by example. This strategy is employed across the firm and suits him down to the ground. “Throughout the firm there’s very little management,” he says. “There’s only one partner that doesn’t practise law and is a full-time manager. Everyone else is still expected to spend most of their time practising law.”
In the current economic climate, that is easier said than done. Skadden’s capital markets practice has had a slack year. Buck does not prevaricate: “Business is definitely down and anyone that tells you otherwise is simply lying. There are pockets of the law that are very busy – restructuring, bankruptcy and litigation. Our capital markets business is off. Luckily, we have a fair amount of M&A, arbitration and restructuring work, and also high-yield work – which I do – to fill in, where we were maybe doing initial public offerings in the past.”
Buck says he hasn’t really thought about the future. He will remain the boss “for as long as they let me” and has been charged with taking Skadden further into Europe. The firm has never been impetuous; and with Buck at the helm in Europe that policy is likely to continue.
Law might not have been his first choice of career, but he has no complaints about the way his life has panned out. “I always wanted to be a newspaper man,” he says. “My father was a newspaper man. He convinced me not to.” Buck could have had a nice line in Brian Sewell-style waspishness.
He continues: “Admittedly, my father gave me a little push, but from my first day at White & Case I’ve enjoyed this job. I’ve really never looked back. I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything. I’ve got no regrets. It’s a pretty good job. You don’t get your hands dirty. The hours are somewhat flexible. It’s sometimes intellectual. Sometimes you’re working on things you read about in the newspapers. And it’s reasonably well paid.”
That is only to be expected at the world’s highest-grossing law firm, but Buck says Skadden does not do anything as unsavoury as talk about money. He is cheekily disingenuous when I mention the subject of turnover: “I don’t know. We don’t talk about numbers.” As with most Buck assertions, it is difficult to tell whether this is the truth or not. The enigma remains.
Partner and head of European offices
Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom