23 August 1999
Senior partner at Mayer Brown & Platt's London office and head of the firm's international practice, Jeff Gordon, is taking it easy. Lightly tanned from a three-week holiday in Martha's Vineyard, he is more or less killing time before he moves on to his next port of call.
At the end of August the Chicago-born lawyer takes over one of the most prestigious in-house jobs in the UK - that of general counsel at GEC.
His move has prompted speculation that Mayer Brown could clean up when Gordon comes to handing out the work on high-profile UK-based deals.
Freshfields receives most of the vast amount of work that is created by the UK's 14th biggest listed company. While Mayer Brown, and Gordon in particular, has handled many US-based deals, the firm has yet to touch on the UK work, and insiders at the firm hope that Gordon will provide the key to that treasure chest.
But Gordon is playing down the speculation.
"While Mayer Brown & Platt in the States has a lot of skills, the firm isn't going to replace the English firms that GEC uses," he argues.
"There is less competition than you think between the US and UK firms in London in terms of who you choose for the work. For a lot of the deals that GEC does you would automatically choose English firms."
Gordon is playing his cards close to his chest, which is natural enough for someone talking about a job they have yet to start. But perhaps the phone call that he takes from his wife at the beginning of the interview has made him even more cautious.
Apologising while hanging up, he tells me that his wife warned him to be careful on hearing that he was just about to do an interview.
He then breaks into an appealing and un-lawyer-like grin that completely transforms his face.
The grin is often accompanied by an almost schoolboy giggle which comes as a surprise every time. Not that Gordon is dour, but the giggle contrasts with his evident fierce intelligence.
And intelligence is what Gordon says he will miss most about working in private practice. Given that he has spent the last 20 years working for the firm, private practice for him effectively means Mayer Brown.
"A big-time law firm has such a collection of smart people. The law business has attracted very high quality people because it is an attractive, highly paid profession.
"Also, when you are a lifer like me, you have a lot of friends," Gordon says.
So why is he leaving his friends? Firstly, Gordon knows GEC pretty well, as he has been working with its finance director John Mayo since Mayo was at investment bank Warburgs back in the 1980s. It was he who approached Gordon to fill the vacancy left by Michael Lester's move to British Aerospace.
Secondly, Gordon fancies a change of scenery and is obviously delighted that this particular opportunity has come up.
"It is tempting for a lot of corporate lawyers to get a job as a general counsel of a big company but the trick is finding the right company," he muses.
"What you fear about joining a company is that it is going to be boring. In private practice you get to see a lot of different deals with a lot of different companies.
"It would be difficult to find a company more diverse than GEC and they have more deals going on then you would find in the average law firm or investment bank."
To have work arrive on his desk rather than having to hunt for it will be a mixed blessing, however.
"The not-nice bit about being in private practice and having to hustle people to come through the doors also brings a lot of excitement and satisfaction. It was the worst part and the best part," says Gordon.
"But the people at GEC work plenty hard - this isn't a nine to five with a cup of tea job."
Gordon has been in his present position for two years but was previously in London for seven years from 1987. In between he returned to the firm's headquarters in Chicago for four years, where he admits he was a serious contender for chairmanship of the firm.
However, his on-the-record explanation for his return to London and passing up the role of top-dog is that it was for family reasons. It would seem that the Big Smoke holds more appeal than the Windy City.
And it is here that Gordon sees his future.
Although he says that he stayed with Mayer Brown because the firm grew to accommodate his personal ambitions, Gordon is obviously not a career butterfly. Besides, he is really excited about this new move.
"If GEC is not the right company then I don't know which one is," he smiles.
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