Strength and honour

Anders Hansen has a very firm handshake – virtually to the point of crushing some minor bones in my hand. In my book, this is no bad thing – there’s nothing worse than the limp fish greeting – but here’s hoping that the chairman of Osborne Clarke’s European alliance doesn’t meet any concert pianists. Perhaps it is a throwback to his previous career as a Danish paratrooper – used in the right way, his handshake could temporarily disable entire regiments.

I apologise if I’m losing the plot somewhat, but it is not often that the Fiona Callister Interview gets to meet former paratroopers. In fact, this is a first, and what’s more, this ex-paratrooper smells lovely.

This is not a particularly pathetic chat-up attempt – the Man On The Sofa would object – but Hansen has the sort of subtle fragrance that continentals specialise in. Not just clean… also fragrant. But anyway, enough girl talk and down to business. I can assure you that despite Hansen’s scent, the rest of this interview will be extremely objective and hard hitting… honest.

Hansen is the leading corporate partner in the Danish alliance member Pedersen & Jantzen, which has changed its name to Osborne Clarke. He was appointed chairman of the alliance at the beginning of June, a post he says he did not volunteer for. “Someone had forwarded my name and I was asked to leave the room so they could discuss whether I was suitable,” he says. “It’s been many years since I was asked to leave the room so people could talk about me.”

Presumably, nothing too terrible was revealed behind the closed doors, as the committee decided that Hansen was the man for the job. So what does he believe were the attributes that led to his appointment? “For one, I’m a European,” he says. “That’s very important going forward. I think that I’ve also shown qualities in our own firm in Denmark that have brought us up to speed on a lot of issues. That’s proved I have what it takes to get things done and to make decisions, even those that one would rather not take. These are qualities that are not often recognised as qualities.”

The fact that Hansen is not a Brit presumably reassures the other members of the alliance – De Wolf & Partners in Belgium, Hedman & Partners in Finland, Stehlin & Associés in Paris, Ploum Lodder Princen in Rotterdam – that the Osborne Clarke machine is not going to run them all into the ground.

At Pedersens he helped push through reforms that saw the powerbase shifting from the older generation to the younger partners. “You always have the difficult issues of when is the right time for someone to let go,” says Hansen. “The general perception is not necessarily the same as his own perception of timing. It’s like a father and a son. The father thinks that he is the only source of knowledge for the son and the son thinks that the father is no good. Neither is right.”

Hansen relates this in a way that suggests that while the process was painful, nothing was going to shake him from the path. “At times like that, it’s often easier to look the other way and hope the problem will go away. But as with most problems in life, they won’t go away, so you might as well confront them.”

He says that his personal style is straightforward and to the point, so one can only imagine the bloody scenes. A lazier journalist might use a tired Viking cliché at this point, but I know you would expect better.

So in the last three years, Hansen says that the firm has transformed into a modern operation that is far more entrepreneurial than before. Once that process had been set in motion, Osborne Clarke called up to float the possibility of an alliance after many years of working together. This followed many years of approaches from domestic law firms, which were constantly rebuffed.
“We’re known as having a very good client base and quality work,” says Hansen modestly. “Everyone could see that the next generation of partners at the firm was ready, so a lot of law firms suggested mergers of various kinds. We didn’t feel that a domestic law firm would meet our needs. In order to fulfil that vision, we needed something that was international.”

Following Osborne Clarke’s approach, Hansen says that the firm was surprised to find it had the same ideas and qualities as Pedersens. “We thought that we’d just invented them,” laughs Hansen. The Bristol-based firm had a tradition of doing Anglo-Danish work, so the two firms already knew each other relatively well. There were few client conflicts and few clients in common, so both sides gained contacts.

Pedersens signed up to the alliance in October last year, only a couple of months before the cracks started to show with German member Graf von Westphalen Fritze & Modest. With Germany being Denmark’s largest trading partner, this was a particular blow to Hansen’s firm.

“It came as a complete surprise to everyone,” says Hansen. “It’s very difficult to run a law firm in Germany. The fact that it was spread all over Germany must have been a big challenge for it.”

Divisions within the German firm made it difficult for Graf von Westphalen to consider moving forward within the Osborne Clarke alliance, so the decision was made that the firm should leave. But Hansen says that there are no hard feelings. “It’s like a husband and wife who decide that they’re not going to stay together for ever,” he says. “It’s not that we were unhappy or spiteful, but our lives are going in different directions. I was happy that we were able to do that. It came as a surprise both to the Germans and to us. It had to be a choice of priorities.”
Osborne Clarke came out of the split fairly well, taking nine partners from the firm’s Cologne office to set up its own office in the city.

Hansen’s priority is to grow the alliance to seven or eight jurisdictions by 2004. “That’s an ambitious target, but I like ambitious targets, and I’m sure that we have the quality to reach that target,” he says. “But all European countries are different and there are different cultural issues. We have to map out the road between here and 2004.”
Another aim is to integrate all members into one firm, while retaining the distinctive culture of each. As many alliances have shown before, this is a tall order. “We’re the first [alliance] to reflect cultural differences and to find a formula to allow those differences into the equation. We’re the first law firm to realise that growth is not the issue. The first problem is integration of the culture,” Hansen claims, although I’m sure that other firms would strongly disagree.

Hansen is big on preserving cultural identities, a theme that has stayed with him since his days as a paratrooper, mostly spent as a liaison officer visiting foreign armies and spending time on exercise with them. During his time he worked with the UK army, including some time with the SAS in Wales and some with the German, Italian, Spanish and Dutch armies. This means that he can hold a conversation with a squaddie in six languages.

Eventually he decided to leave, after realising that the army as a business was on a decline. “Looking at the changes in the world and politics, it was not going to make the army an interesting choice from a career perspective,”
he says. “I left and took with me all the good memories and experience, the leadership training and people skills. I still think that the armies of the world have people skills that are heavily underestimated.” While he points out that the stereotype of the bawling sergeant dominates, people forget that the army has sufficient people skills to persuade people to put their lives on the line for a cause that they may not even agree with.

Now, if that doesn’t scare alliance members into toeing the line towards integration, nothing will.
Anders Hansen
European chairman
Osborne Clarke