Andrew Daws has the challenging task of finding a suitable law firm for Ernst & Young to link up with. As Philip Hoult discovers, it is a job he relishes.
SITTING in Andrew Daws' eighth floor office at Ernst & Young's headquarters near Waterloo station, it is difficult not to feel a little disappointed.
The room in which Daws is planning to redraw the UK legal map by spearheading the Big Five accountancy firm's foray into legal services is, frankly, tiny.
No strategic map with tanks and soldiers, or flags on cities to be conquered. Simply a desk, a filing cabinet, a couple of shelves half filled with papers and books and a view of an office block next door – all of which makes you question the relative importance of the project to E&Y.
Daws has consultancy status at his new firm, but he reports directly to UK senior partner Nick Land and vice-chairman of international tax and legal, Andrew Jones. He says he was offered partnership but turned it down
"I didn't feel I needed the status," he says.
It would also mean, of course, that he would have to come off the Solicitors Roll.
Daws clearly relishes the chance to implement the grand strategy. The first thing ex-colleagues say about him is that he is extremely clever.
The second is that he is very ambitious. A partner at Denton Hall for more than 22 years, he was latterly a board member. A source at the firm says that Daws was in the running for chairmanship in 1996 when Henry King announced he would be retiring.
But partner soundings showed that younger board member, 41-year-old James Dallas, was the favoured man. Dallas was elected unopposed in November 1996.
That month, the firm pulled out of tripartite merger talks with Cameron Markby Hewitt and McKenna & Co. It is believed to be Dallas who was the one board member who voted against the merger.
Daws had been an enthusiastic supporter of the merger, and has said that if it had gone ahead, he would have stayed to take part in managing it. He describes Dentons' failure to go through with it as "a missed opportunity".
In any case, when he resigned aged 54 in October last year, Daws, who is married with children, was getting tired of the long hours and cancelled weekends that have become the lot of the City corporate lawyer.
According to Jonathan Tatten, Dentons' managing partner, Daws was a "dominant" presence in the firm's corporate department and "all the big deals had his stamp on them".
Asked whether he misses the high-adrenaline world of corporate deal making, Daws says: "I thought I'd miss it, but I don't at all."
Daws grew up in Margaret Thatcher's home town of Grantham. He points out that the grammar school he attended there was the boys' equivalent of Thatcher's old school.
Not unlike local girl Thatcher he enjoys a "spirited" debate. He was renowned at Dentons for his trenchant, well-defined views which guaranteed a lively discussion. Recalling those meetings, Tatten says: "As long as you threw back as much as he threw at you, you got respect."
Daws strongly believes in the message that he is selling. He says the solicitor's view of accountants as bean counters is outdated. As he points out, auditing only provides one-third of E&Y's total income.
"E&Y," he argues, "offers many other professional services, such as audit, accountancy, consultancy, tax and IT. Why not law?"
Daws is crystal clear about the future of the UK legal market. He believes that in the not-too-distant future, there will be the top five firms with "their own agenda", firms merged with US firms and firms tied to the accountancy giants. As for the rest, Daws is blunt about their prospects.
These firms, he argues, are left with "three basic options: merge with a larger practice, merge with a US practice or merge with the accountants".
Daws is now on the hunt for a firm with the two attributes he considers crucial: "quality and credibility".
"After all," he says, "you have to persuade E&Y partners to use the firm."
Daws and E&Y would like to have a law firm on board by the end of 1998. However, he claims to be under no pressure to wrap up a deal.
When E&Y first floated the idea of a UK legal practice, Daws' boss, Nick Land, appeared to favour a start-up like Arthur Andersen's Garretts, Price Waterhouse's Arnheim & Co and Coopers & Lybrand's Tite & Lewis.
Diplomatically, Daws says: "I'm happy to have that option."
But he favours forming an alliance with a major firm to give him the quality and credibility he is looking for.
The firm – "it doesn't have to be a huge firm" – will mirror E&Y's own corporate strengths and focus on corporate finance, property, banking and employment, and will have a private client capacity.
Obviously, Daws will not reveal who he is talking to. The names of Lawrence Graham and Dentons have been rumoured but Daws suggests that one option would be to put together two smaller firms taken from the top 60 or 70.
"They would do better united with us than separately," he says.
One of these firms is likely to have a national network with offices in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
But Daws' job, which many a 50-something City lawyer would have killed for last year, has suddenly got more difficult with the collapse of the Wilde Sapte/Andersens deal.
For many lawyers, the withdrawal of Andersens showed how accountants could behave. Understandably, Daws is keen to play down its wider significance, arguing that just because one deal goes wrong it does not scupper the whole concept.
He feels that E&Y has a better offer to make in that it only has one level of partnership rather than Andersens' two-tier arrangement.
Asked about his own future once the E&Y law firm takes shape, Daws professes not to be interested in taking a management role in the new organisation.
So if he pulls off the highly difficult trick of bringing a big name law firm into the arms of his accountant masters, it may be his last coup before retirement.
Still, it is not a bad way to bow out.