McGrigor Donald managing partner Steven Scates is not fond of the ‘Scottish firm’ label attached to his practice. Fiona Callister meets the man who has global expansion planned for the UK-wide firm.
Steven Scates, the London managing partner of McGrigor Donald, is concerned about where he should have his picture taken.
Normally it would be in front of an engraved glass panel in the reception area which has the firm’s name on, but the attached slogan reads: “The law firm in Scotland.” The Scottish tag is one that Scates is keen to push into the background – so much so that the firm recently announced it is looking for a merger partner in London (The Lawyer, 27 March).
“Articles about us always start with ‘Scottish heavyweight’ or something similar. But we think of ourselves as a national firm in much the same way as Eversheds or Dibbs probably do,” says Scates. “We are not headquartered in any particular city any more.”
As part of McGrigor Donald’s plan to become as well known in London as it is north of the border, the firm is bolstering the number of lawyers in its City office. It recently recruited former DJ Freeman head of construction Anthony Edwards and SJ Berwin corporate partner David Mandell.
But while Scates has high ambitions for the City, he says that there does not seem to be any suitable merger candidates around at the moment.
“It is difficult to find people doing the sort of work we do at the level at which we do it. A potential merger partner could be quite big – bigger in London than we are, but probably no bigger than McGrigors is as a whole.”
Although Scates is focused on national growth, he does see the benefits of being a Scottish firm. He admits that most of the firm’s clients probably first came to it because of the Scottish capability but that they stay because of the quality of the work in each office. He says: “Being connected to a Scottish firm is a help rather than a hindrance, but people, like the media, tend to assume that if you are good at one thing, you are no good at anything else.”
At the same time as building the London office, Scates is looking abroad, but unlike the majority of middle-tier firms it is not looking east. “For years I have thought about international expansion and looking at continental Europe then coming away to look at the US again. But I have yet to witness a strong useful connection in continental Europe,” says Scates.
“It seems to me that the two successful areas for UK firms are the Far East and the States. There are a lot of US firms that are looking to invest over here and I am still not sure whether the London offices of US firms have that capability yet.”
He adds: “Whether our name is known in the States is not relevant as the cult of personality is much stronger there and people tend to follow lawyers and not firms.”
It is with this in mind that McGrigor Donald is currently creating a best friends relationship with both an east and west coast firm in the US, although Scates refuses to reveal names until the details are finalised.
Being a London player was what attracted Scates to McGrigor Donald two years ago when he joined the firm from Nicholson Graham & Jones. But his entry into the law was something of an accident.
After graduating in political science, he joined Reading Borough Council and aspired to be a town clerk, following in the footsteps of his mentor there, a man called Harry T. But this was during a time of great growth within the town and planning issues were at the top of the agenda. Because of the burgeoning area, the council decided it needed a planning law expert.
Sponsored by the council, Scates went to law school. After a few years practising in Reading he left to join a niche property firm called Peter Jacobs & Co. But when that firm merged with music practice Sheridans, Scates decided to leave.
“While buying studios for Duran Duran was great fun it wasn’t the work that I wanted to do,” he says.
He and fellow colleague Ian Rosenblatt set up their own firm which lasted five years until 1994, when Scates took his half of the practice to Nicholson Graham & Jones.
According to Rosenblatt, Scates relinquished equity in 1992 and became a salaried partner.
Rosenblatt is now tight-lipped about his former partner. “I don’t know anything about his career since he left,” he says. “What do you want me to say, that he’s a nice guy or a nasty guy? I don’t think I can comment on that. What did he say?”
What Scates says is that the two men had different visions for the firm. It is obvious from his taciturn stance that the parting was not entirely amicable. However, any quibbles with past partners have not affected Scates’ standing in the City and on the day I speak to him, he is due to be voted in as the first chairman of the Managing Partners Forum.
The forum was founded out of a frustration among City firms that their voices were not heard at the Law Society.
“By the time the Law Society catches up with changes we need to make us competitive, it is too late. Things like trading on the internet are changing on a month by month basis.”
He adds: “Some people would say that the Law Society is run for the benefit of small provincial practices. The needs of a two to three partner firm in Aylesbury are very different to those of Allen & Overy and McGrigor Donald.”
Scates hopes that the forum will become a strong lobbying voice in the areas where the Law Society has failed to represent the legal giants.
Just how irrelevant the Law Society is to people like Scates is clear when I ask him what he thinks of the latest upheaval that has put the organisation, and its decision to suspend vice-president Kamlesh Bahl, into the pages of every broadsheet newspaper in the UK.
“Sorry, who?” he says.