Mark Evans is the new boy at Hammonds. After 10 years away from private practice, he has had a rather forced return to firm life. His last in-house role was as general counsel at Enron Europe, something that most people might try and gloss over on their CV. When we meet he has officially been with Hammonds for just two days and is revelling in being back in the saddle.
The sun is beating down as we head out for a coffee to become better acquainted. Whether this is because Evans has yet to get to grips with the room booking system at Hammonds, or because he fancies a temporary escape, is not clear. Either way, the interview is conducted in a nearby Starbucks against a background of whooshing jets of steam and clattering crockery.
Evans could be forgiven for being reluctant to talk about his former employer, but he is open about the bizarre situation he found himself in.
“There are legitimate financial deals and there are probably those that are not,” he says. “Enron was always – and it may sound comical now – a very compliant organisation through the ranks. There were a lot of lawyers and to a man they were all, in my experience, extremely honest and upstanding people who would not do corrupt or in any way improper transactions.”
When he joined Enron in 1995 the company had just five lawyers. By the time Enron collapsed Evans had become general counsel, presiding over a team of 30 lawyers. The transactions he oversaw were once heralded as the epitome of ingenuity. He was at the forefront of Enron’s shift from assets to trading and was involved in deals that most corporate finance lawyers would have given their eyeteeth to get stuck into. Unfortunately for Evans, this catalogue of deals is now tainted by infamy and regarded with suspicion. It has been a wrench to leave that dynamism behind, but after a surreal few months, Evans is ready for the relative stability offered by Hammonds.
Evans gives a good impression of stoicism, but he did not emerge from the debacle unscathed. Aside from the obvious problems of being associated with the highest profile collapse of a major international company, losing his job and having his standing sullied by default, Evans also lost out financially. He still has a collection of useless paper that used to be Enron share certificates. “At the end of the day I couldn’t sell any of them because as things were going bad I felt that I flipped in and out of being an insider and didn’t want to risk selling any stock,” he says. “So I lost all of it.” Evans acknowledges that at least his pension was not invested in Enron stock.
His reputation inevitably took a walloping. Every man and his dog knows the name Enron and the attendant whiff of dodgy dealing. “It did have a negative impact, but it also depended on what had been written in the FT the day before I went for an interview.” He pauses before adding: “There’s no point trying to defend anything written about Enron because people will just laugh. But a lot of it was just junk. There’s clearly no smoke without fire, but some of the stuff was just misleading.” He was inside Enron and even he does not know how it went so wrong. “I don’t think anybody really knows what happened at Enron yet,” he muses before suggesting that we may never know the real story.
“I still find it very hard to believe,” Evans continues. “On any scale, it’s got to rank as one of the most extraordinary events of recent times. And to have been involved in it is just an extraordinary thing.”
Evans has had to discard the section of his wardrobe that holds his Enron-branded clothes. “I’ve got a nice black cap with the Enron logo on, but I’ve stopped wearing it because people kept stopping me in the street and asking whether I worked for Enron. People just want to talk about it.”
People, that is, with the exception of Evans’ barber. “I said I used to work at Enron with a sort of knowing glance, and he said, ‘Who’s that?’; so he’s got to be the only guy in the whole world who doesn’t know.” Perhaps the barber fancies some of those shares.
Having spent the past couple of weeks on holiday, Evans is pragmatic about his recent experiences. He says he prefers to look forward rather than back. He has joined the utilities practice at Hammonds at a time when the firm is flinging money in its direction. As revealed in The Lawyer last week, Patrick Somers is due to join the team from Transco company Lattice and Morgan Cole‘s former head of energy Paul Dillon is already ensconced.
After Enron’s ambitions were reduced to nothing, Evans could have been more inclined towards an easy life, but he argues that he still has something to prove and that Hammonds fits that bill. “What excited me about Hammonds was the fact that it’s got massive upward momentum. It’s come from its Northern roots, like myself, and has made a name for itself in the City,” he asserts. The utilities team boasts clients that include BP, TXU and Energis and, fortunately for a man escaping his past, no previous connections with Enron.
“A lot of the firms that I spoke to when I was transitioning out of Enron asked, ‘Why didn’t you use us? One of the things that you can bring us is insight from the other side of the fence’,” recalls Evans. Not all firms were so receptive. “When I was interviewing, some people’s attitude was that, as a matter of policy, they wouldn’t talk to people from Enron. The ones that were more concerned than others were American organisations, because they were getting the heat from back home. They might have had an Enron relationship and they were looking to distance themselves from that and didn’t want to be seen to be taking on anyone from Enron’s legal department.”
Evans is confident that he is up for the new challenge. “There are undoubtedly new skills that I will have to learn,” he admits. “It’s not totally alien. I was at Herbert Smith for a long time. But as general counsel at Enron I was responsible for managing the team and ensuring that the product got delivered. I like to think that it’s not that different.”
Evans says he is excited by his return to private practice. “The one bugbear in-house is that we were always a cost,” he explains. “While we contributed to the full at Enron and really were deal facilitators, we were a cost. One of the nice things about private practice is that the future is more under my control because I’m a profit centre.”
Ironically, given that many in private practice view moving in-house as the secure, tame option, Evans has found the opposite to be true. As Enron was winding down he was going into work every day at a company that effectively no longer existed, to sit in an office in which all furniture was marked for auction. At Hammonds he may have to share a secretary, but at least the firm is not planning to sell the chair from under him.