Keeping up with Jones

“Frosty! What are you doing on my patch?” The voice booming round the foyer of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Centre Point reception almost inevitably belongs to Sir Digby Jones. Jones has not yet been formally introduced to The Lawyer, checking in for the interview a few yards away, but there is no mistaking the identity of the voice’s owner.

Jones is a TV, radio and newspaper regular. He pops up more than almost any other figure in UK business and, although Jones may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the man named Frosty in reception appears to respond to his greeting with genuine warmth.

“Never had jet lag in my life, never had a hangover,” Jones continues, holding court in the lift to his second-floor office. “It’s all to do with the metabolic rate.” Jones is fresh off the plane this morning from the December World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in Hong Kong and, it is only fair to report, is showing no signs of weariness.

If Jones’s larger-than-life personality is an anachronism in what he believes is an increasingly sterile UK legal market, his credentials to pass educated comment on that market as it prepares for Clementi-related upheaval are impeccable. The director-general of the UK’s top lobbying organisation for UK business represents the interests of 200,000 businesses at home and abroad, is the former head of a law firm (Edge & Ellison, pre-merger with Hammonds) and a former partner at one of the big four accountants. He has headed the CBI during arguably its most successful period in its 40-year history, overseeing a record membership rise and the opening of offices in Washington DC in 2002 and Beijing late last year.

In Jones, its high-profile head, it can also claim one of the best-known business commentators in the media. And if there is one thing Jones likes to do, it is to comment. “I do like the limelight,” he admits. “I do like the sound of my own voice.”

Embracing change

The effervescent Jones is always happy to offer an opinion on anything, usually in a perfectly formed river of soundbites. The looming Clementi-related changes present a subject close to his heart. To his mind, change cannot come too soon.

“In the 1990s, when I was at Edge, there were three sorts of law firm,” he recalls. “Three industries almost. There were the top 10 or so international businesses, which happened to be based in London but are really international, global champion businesses for Britain. Then there were the good-quality London or regional firms, where the UK business is the core business. And then the high-street firms – firms that provide the most enormous social service.

“And across all that you’ve got the Law Society, trying to be regulator and promoter at the same time and trying to say, ‘I fight the corner of the partner at Slaughter and May and at the same time Bloggs & Co in Neasden’.

“I said this in 1995 and today nothing’s changed. [The Law Society] has an impossible task, because they’re not just different aspects of the same profession – they’re different industries, totally different industries.”

Jones’s advice to the legal market is simple. “Never confuse your message,” he says. “To get the legal profession recognised more in society, the first thing to do is to stop trying to be all things to all people. Keep your message simple. Repeat it again and again and again, and then one day a politician says they’ve had an idea.”

One idea that the Government has had, of course, is to open up the profession to more competition and new sources of capital via the Clementi review. Does Jones believe we will one day see the first law firm float?
“Yes I do,” he asserts. “It’s sequential really, and I see Clementi moving us further down that path.

“Partners at the clever firms are already surrendering their strategic management rights to a group of people, a board, for a period of time. It’s got to be the next step that, if they want to open in Outer Mongolia or hire the best infrastructure team in Britain and don’t have the funds, they’ll consider heading off to a private equity firm, or go and get listed.

“And what’s more, it must follow that you can limit your liability. Because no private equity provider’s going to go into bankruptcy for them, so why should the partners?”
Jones sees the limited-liability partnership model as a halfway house to a listing or outside ownership. “And the other thing it’ll do, for the first time, is enable lawyers to have what every single other client they advise – other than other professionals – has, and that is capital appreciation.

“Anyone who tells me that the quality of your advice and the integrity that you have in society means that you have to risk the shirt off your back and your kids’ futures and, oh, by the way, the day you leave you’re going to have no capital appreciation for what you’ve done, [is wrong]. That belongs not to the 20th century, that belongs to the 19th century.”

Champion of the new

Once Jones is in full flow, it is not easy to stop him. A favourite topic is new legislation. The champion of British free enterprise would dearly love to take a broadsword to what he sees as the swathe of unnecessary red tape which swamps UK businesses, including law firms.

“Lawyers have this two-edged sword,” he says. “On the one hand, they benefit from a regulated society because they advise and prosecute and defend. On the other hand, they’re victims themselves of this regulated environment. We are all of us in society participating in this huge lie. We’re telling people risk doesn’t exist. We’re telling kids, ‘Don’t play conkers in the playground, you might get hurt. Don’t do backstroke in the swimming pool, you might bang into somebody’. They have sports days where there are no winners. They have exams you can’t fail. We’re giving people in our society rights until they’re coming out the pores of their skin. And we’re not bringing them up to understand they have to take responsibility for their own lives and their own actions. And we’re regulating the sense of enterprise and entrepreneurial flair out of our society. And we’ll pay the price, because there are 1.3 billion Chinese who are risk takers; there’s a billion Indians who want your lunch.”

Never go back

The number of CBI-linked lunches are numbered now for Jones, whose tenure at the top will end later this year. The longest-serving director-general does not yet know what he is going to do next, but he does know he will miss it “desperately”. So far the only thing he has set his face against is politics. “Dirty business,” he says, perhaps only half joking. “I’ve been asked by all three [parties], which probably means I’m doing the right thing. I’m fiercely apolitical in this job and fiercely independent of all three. I do know I won’t be going back into the law. Never go back.”

The interview is over and Jones’s next appointment is already about to start, but he is unable to resist one last river of opinion.

“We have the best lawyers in the world. They are the least corrupt; they’re certainly the ones that have the highest standards, and I’m very proud to be able to champion the legal profession of Britain around the world. No, they’re not perfect; yes, there’s a lot they could do a lot better, but they’re a damn sight better than any other.”

The headhunters are now out looking for Jones’s replacement. They have got quite an act to follow.