Sean Farrell meets Rowe & Maw’s IT partner Michael Webster who attacked the firm’s retirement policy when the 58-year-old was forced to seek new challenges at Nicholson Graham & Jones.
Michael Webster, Rowe & Maw’s highly rated IT partner, was unprepared for the headlines he made when he criticised the firm’s retirement policy in The Lawyer (28 February).
Webster, 58, complained that to continue practising as an equity partner at a firm where the retirement age is 60, he had to quit the firm after 27 years to join Nicholson Graham & Jones.
“My thesis was wider,” he says. “I didn’t intend to be critical of my firm. This is symptomatic of what’s happening to the majority of firms.
“It was about the attitude of City firms and I’m sure it will change as it has in the US. In the longer term there will be greater flexibility from City firms, but we’re straying on to that subject again aren’t we?” he laughs.
Webster is keen not to stray on to “That Subject” and instead to stress the positive aspects of his move to Nicholson Graham & Jones.
But having spent three years negotiating with Rowe & Maw before deciding to leave, he has obviously thought a lot about where the profession has gone in the last 20 years.
When he was interviewed by Rowe & Maw he met two-thirds of the partners before he was accepted. But in 1973 the firm only had six partners.
Between being interviewed and joining the firm from Herbert Smith as a partner this number had more than doubled – not through massive expansion but because promotion to partner was a way to beat the Labour government’s pay freeze.
Practice in a City firm has changed as much as government methods for controlling inflation. “The world now takes a more short-term view and law is no longer a job for life,” he says.
And he adds that those going into the profession now should accept that they will have several careers.
Webster himself had several careers while at Rowe & Maw, starting as a corporate finance lawyer, which then included areas like tax, pensions, employment and competition.
“During the 1970s and early 1980s these areas gradually came away from corporate and became specialist areas,” he says. “I was instrumental in setting up the competition group – not that I knew much about it but I knew it was important.”
In the late 1980s, Webster embarked on a second career as a venture capital specialist “advising companies that are beyond embryo but pre-maturity”. In this role, he attracted important clients like 3i and Apax.
Since the recession of the early 1990s, he has been “a holistic lawyer” for the IT sector. This role involves advising technology companies on corporate matters rather than having varied clients.
“I hope to continue that with Nicholson Graham & Jones,” says Webster.
“The firm had a good name and I came across it in the late 1980s but didn’t know much about its practice.
“At the second interview I met Sarah Kirk and Peter McBride – the other partners in the group – and they were keen to get someone more senior on board and give the group greater identification.”
As the most senior partner, Webster will be arriving as de facto head of the group.
Michael Johns, Nicholson Graham & Jones’ managing partner, says Webster’s arrival is a prelude to splitting the group off into a department within a year.
“Getting an elder statesman gives us a great advantage, almost the converse of what Rowe & Maw thought,” says Johns. “Our team is young and it’s very good for us not only to have a technical expert but also one that has been around for a while.”
Webster may be approaching 60, but he strikes a lean, athletic figure. “I am very keen on exercise,” he says, adding that his profile on Rowe & Maw’s website lists him as enjoying tennis, golf, long-distance walking and tree felling.
Tree felling? “At some misguided moment I said I was into tree felling. In fact, it’s probably much more skilled than much of what you do in a lawyer’s office. It’s certainly more dangerous.”
Webster has mixed feelings about his exit from Rowe & Maw. “It’s 27 years and that’s a long time to give to a practice.
“But maybe it was time to leave. I said the world has a much more short-term view and in a way I am practising what I preach in that I’m recognising that no job is for ever and I’m seeking a new dimension by going to another firm.”