Ian Coles’ cufflinks say it all. Each of his double cuffs is secured by an enamelled Union Jack on one side and the Stars and Stripes on the other.
Coles became managing partner of Mayer Brown & Platt on 1 January, making him only the second English lawyer to head a US firm’s London office.
But he is a particularly transatlantic Englishman. His accent is curious blend of Yorkshire tea and American pop, with “going to” becoming “gonna” and “later” pronounced “lay-der”. This Doncaster-born Yank has been with the US firm for nearly 20 years and has a wife from Chicago.
But despite all these American mannerisms, when he goes to the pub back in Yorkshire his accent returns, “which is the important thing, because otherwise you won’t get served”.
Coles’ wife insists that their three children are American, but he is determined to instill in them his passion for football and his local team, Fulham, although he supports Leeds United and visits Elland Road whenever he can.
After graduating in law from Cambridge in 1978, Coles went to the Bar and then took an LLM at Harvard. In 1981 he joined Mayers, first in Chicago and then in New York. The original aim was for him to return to the UK after six months in New York to work for Mayers in London, but he stayed for over there three years.
The beginning of the Reagan boom was, he says, an exciting time to be unattached and in his mid-twenties in the Big Apple. “It was like Bonfire of the Vanities, which was great for me at the time, though I’m not sure New York is somewhere I could spend the rest of my life.”
This gave Coles a feeling of what it was to be a financial lawyer “at a time when the idea of working round the clock for your client seemed strange over here”. If there is still a difference in culture between US and UK firms, he says, it is this willingness to work all-out for the client.
He returned to London in 1984, working in buyouts, before switching to project finance after becoming a partner in 1987. At this time, he says, “the idea that an American firm had an English partner was pretty bizarre”, but this is now common as firms on both sides of the Atlantic seek to expand internationally. Coles does not believe there is enough work for all the US firms in London to succeed and warns: “We shall see who survives when the fallout comes.”
He believes US firms still suffer from the image of being carpetbaggers, setting up an office with American lawyers to do US work from London. But he points out that most of the office’s work and lawyers are English already. As managing partner, Coles hopes to double the size of Mayers’ London office over the next 18 months by recruiting more English lawyers.
With the likelihood of more Brits joining the firm, Coles – with trusty cufflinks and transatlantic accent – will be doing his best to ensure that Mayers doesn’t become one firm divided by a common language.
Mayer Brown & Platt