Mayfair lady: Forsters
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28 February 2014
Sophie Hamilton’s vision of a private client and property practice failed to convince the City elite, so when she co-founded Forsters she chose London’s hotel district as its home.
Forsters" class="inline_image inline_image_left" src="/pictures/web/images/13472_22_forsters.gif" />Walking through the front doors of Forsters’ Mayfair offices is a bit like walking into a hotel. The décor is in stark contrast to that of most City firms, and it is immediately obvious you are walking into the offices of a firm with a difference.
Forsters was set up in 1998, following the demise of Frere Cholmeley Bischoff. While Eversheds moved to acquire half the firm, including its Paris and Moscow offices, the private client and property teams were not so keen to join the national firm.
Senior partner Sophie Hamilton says Forsters as a concept came into being because the two practices found themselves without an appropriate home to relocate to in the City.
“The vision and philosophy behind the launch was this strong triangular link between commercial property, residential property and private client, which was the core reason why we started Forsters,” she recalls. “When Frere Cholmeley Bischoff began to break up it was evident that not everybody wanted to do the same thing. Our vision couldn’t be realised at Eversheds because the firm didn’t recognise there was a strong core link between private client and property.”
But Eversheds was not alone in failing to recognise the link, says Hamilton. “We talked to 10 or 12 of the top 20 firms, [none of which understood] our vision.”
With private client head David Willis as senior partner and Paul Roberts as managing partner, an 11-partner team decided to go it alone.
It was an audacious move, made even more stark by the decision to quit the City and set up home in the heart of Mayfair. At the time it raised some eyebrows, but Hamilton insists: “It was absolutely the right thing to do, without a shadow of a doubt.”
She explains: “Mayfair is a great place for private clients to come and see solicitors. Their banks are here, and Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as well as people who advise on financial assets. Everything is on their doorstep.”
The birth of Forsters all ran pretty smoothly although, according to Hamilton, uncharacteristically hot weather did make moving to Mayfair somewhat challenging.
Hamilton says the practicality of getting filing cabinets up several flights of stairs was back-breaking. She adds: “I had to run to a meeting and I was dripping with sweat, then I signed in under the Frere Cholmeley name. It was a bit like when you get married and change your name.”
Forsters celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and a £23.6m turnover, with an average profit per equity partner of £449,000. It is now 89th in The Lawyer UK 200 – five years ago it would not even have broken into the top 100. It coincides with a new strategy – investing in the private client practice – while the property market goes through its periodical slump.
As this strategy takes hold, Hamilton will stand down as senior partner and be replaced by Guy Jordan. Hamilton wants to spend more time in practice, although she will continue to help manage the firm. Her tenure at the top has been hugely successful, resulting in her being shortlisted this year by The Lawyer Awards for partner of the year.
Managing partner Paul Roberts is full of praise for Hamilton and it is clear the pair are firm friends. He sees Hamilton’s succession as seamless and says Jordan is set to continue to build the practice with Hamilton’s support.
Although she is considered among property circles as a force to be reckoned with, Hamilton is quietly spoken and modest. When asked about her management style, she says: “It’s just a question of attitude – if you treat people as equals, they’ll treat you as an equal. You have to manage people and sometimes you have to have difficult conversations with them. It isn’t about having lots of meetings.”
Her practical approach, she says, is born out of the way she trained alongside Roberts at their former firm, when private estates work mixed less frequently with private client, but both needed a dual knowledge base.
On a management level, they have used their own initiative: “We tell people it is our responsibility to make sure you have the work to do, at the right level, and the right amount of it, so you produce what we need from you.”
When Jordan replaces Hamilton in November he knows he has some big shoes to fill. It appears Jordan is going to continue walking the path well trodden by Hamilton.
“I feel if it works, why fix it?” he says. “We have a strong reputation in the areas where we wish to have one. Over the next five years, I see us building and consolidating that reputation, but we won’t be standing still. It’s going to be growing the business profitably and looking for support to keep our reputation in place.”
Forsters’ growth is down to its forward-thinking management, with Hamilton and Roberts both considering the needs of the firm first and handpicking lawyers who share their views. Its offices may look like a hotel, but if Forsters really were a hotel it would be a boutique: quirky, yet stylish, and slickly managed.