Mishcon de Reya: Gold’s standard

Mishcon de Reya: Gold’s standard” /> Mishcon ;de Reya managing partner Kevin Gold exhales deeply ;as he recalls the vitriolic press that surrounded the firm following the death of Princess Diana. “It nearly killed Mishcon – it almost knocked us over,” he sighs.

It is now more than a decade since the ‘People’s Princess’ died in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, but in retrospect it has taken Diana’s chosen divorce firm that much time to escape her shadow.

Gold joined Mishcon as a private client partner two years before Diana’s death in August 1997. On the day we met he had recently returned from Kazakhstan, where he was advising one of the country’s wealthier families on investment issues.

Now, sitting across the table from me with a pencil and notepad in front of him, Gold recounts how the death of the Princess of Wales almost brought about the collapse of Mishcon. “Mishcon got thrust into the limelight in what I totally regard as an unfair and unreasonable way,” he says.

The firm had long been associated with Diana after she chose Anthony Julius and Sandra Davis as her divorce lawyers. At the time Julius was head of litigation at the firm, while Davis was a partner in the family practice.

Following Diana’s death, members of the public began sending in cash donations to the firm. These were “big quantities of money,” according to Gold. “We didn’t know what to do with it, so we had to very quickly set up a charity and it was rushed.”

Mishcon was overwhelmed. More than 70 per cent of the firm – from trainees to partners – was caught up in the task of filtering letters and money from the public.

But the media scrutiny turned nasty when it emerged that Mishcon had begun charging the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund for its legal advice. Had it not, says Gold, it would have led to the firm’s collapse.

At the time the Daily Mirror summed up the bitter tone by quoting a source as saying: “It’s especially galling to see a pensioner or child send us £5 because they want to do something in memory of the princess when we know it will go to lawyers. Frankly, it makes you want to weep.”

Gold recalls being followed by reporters who questioned his dignity and cartoons which, he says, pilloried the firm’s Jewish heritage with anti-Semitic undertones.

“The point of the matter is that, behind that kind of glare, the total resource centre of the firm was almost being crippled just by the physical amount of money coming in and letters to be answered,” he says.

Eventually the firm looked to distance itself from the memorial fund by putting the work out to tender. Gold says he was happy to see it go, although it would have been a lucrative contract.

Despite the fallout it is clear that, for Mishcon, Diana’s death was a turning point in the firm’s history. Today it is in robust health, recording a profit per equity partner (PEP) figure of £698,000 for 2006-07. And Gold expects to “consolidate and exceed” that figure by the end of this financial year.

One London managing partner describes Mishcon as being “well rounded” and another as “growing well”.

There are, however, some who believe Mishcon has been tarnished by the high-profile cases it takes on – in particular its association with Heather Mills.

“When you’re associated with these big names there’s always a risk of being dragged through the media mud – it’s hard to escape that,” one source says.

Mills is out of bounds as a topic of conversation. There is a wry smile on Gold’s face when I attempt to bring it up, but the firm operates a strict policy of not commenting on its clients. The truth about how Mishcon’s relationship with Mills turned sour will have to wait for another day.

Right now we are talking about the decade of change. Under intense public scrutiny, in 1998 Mishcon looked inwards and began examining itself. In 1992 the firm had replaced the managing partner structure with a management board. It reverted to its roots six years later, with Gold and Phillip Freedman becoming joint managing partners. Four years later, in 2002, Gold took over the reins as the firm’s sole managing partner.

Gold had joined in 1995 while Lord Mishcon, the firm’s founder, was still working. Lord Mishcon’s grip on the firm was strong and he was reluctant to let go. Gold clearly has admiration for his predecessor, calling him “a god of law”, but he readily admits he was “an old-fashioned style of lawyer” who resisted corporatisation. “He just didn’t believe in sharing it with other people, and why should you?” says Gold.

So when it came to modernising the firm there was always going to be some fallout. Gold says his mission was to drive the corporatisation programme forward by establishing a firmwide structure that reflected its core strengths. But at the time he was up against some big personalities who did not share his ideals.

“When I came here in 1995 most people had a good vibe attitude, but they were shits,” says the typically straight-talking Gold. “There were individuals who were shits – it’s something you find in many, many firms.”

The Lawyer reported in November 1998 how a confrontational management style had forced several exits from the firm, while many department heads lost their places on the management board.

Even today, former partners who quit Mishcon a decade ago are reluctant to reveal the extent of unrest within the firm and many calls asking for comment went unreturned.

But Gold, who speaks with passion about the pace of change, does not forget so easily. He admits that there were problems with the bullying style of particular partners. But he refuses to name names and will only go so far as to say that he eradicated that atmosphere.

“I said I’m not prepared to have that. Why should we tolerate people coming to work and feeling victimised and nervous on a human level?” he insists.

Gold is curiously disarming and puts people around him at ease with his confidence. People close to him say he talks to everyone in the same manner, from support workers within the firm to his multi-billionaire clients.

“There’s something instantly likeable about Kevin, which puts some people off,” one insider reveals. “But it’s also the reason why so many younger people want to work there.”

Gold is known for strolling around Red Lion Square outside Mishcon’s London office, puffing on cigarettes while holding meetings. It may seem like an unorthodox way of managing a firm, but it is where he has had some of his more innovative ideas.

But before we have a chance to explore this further, Gold rushes on to the next phase of the firm’s development.

Like many of his peers, he is keen on drawing to illustrate his points literally. When he begins talking about Mishcon’s core values, his pencil thrusts into a frenzy and his eyes light up. I had been forewarned about Gold’s tendency to get carried away. People who know him say he appears to have a disorganised train of thought, but in reality his mind is moving at such a pace that it is difficult for his mouth to keep up. Perhaps the drawing helps him keep on track.

Mishcon’s core values are the “underlying principle” of the firm. Gold says this means “we’ll hold this firm as trustees for all the stakeholders for future generations”.

One rival managing partner who has lost lawyers to the firm says it is a tactic that appears to have paid off. “Mishcon is very much known for encouraging entrepreneurial spirit,” says the rival. “It’s less institutionalised, which is certainly a different way of working.”

When the managing partner role was reinstated, with Gold’s core values driving the firm’s strategy, many partners “didn’t agree”, resulting in further exits, explains Gold. Some partners, he says, wanted to “extract the maximum buck” from the firm and were unhappy about sharing the wealth. Put simply, says Gold, “the easiest thing for people to do was leave”.

Today the core principles are firmly established and reviewed constantly through the staff consultation committee (SCC).

Gold reels off the values that Mishcon employees are expected to subscribe to: “You can’t treat people like crap; you have to be honest; you have to remember the people who are working around you; and run the practice in a businesslike way.”

Every department, including non-fee-earners, has a representative on the SCC. Gold reports into the group on a bimonthly basis – as frequently as he reports to the Mishcon partnership. It has been the birthplace for several firm schemes, including MQ Squared.

MQ Squared, or ‘Mishcon Quality’, describes standardised best practice within the firm. Scribbling a triangle on his now ruined notepad, Gold shows that this triangulation theory is intertwined with the firm. “Almost everyone in the firm was involved in making this happen to bring about best practice across the firm,” he says. “It took about three years to implement. Every single business process in the firm was looked at, from how people walk through the door, to monitoring every single file, to pastoral care, to growth, to marketing strategy and crime prevention development – we tried to get best practice into all that and manualise and corporatise it.”

Having invested time and money in bringing the firm up to 21st century standards, Gold believes it is now stumbling towards its next crisis – a lack of space. It is frustrating to him that the growth of Mishcon’s staff base is restricted by the size of its Holborn offices. Gold hopes the firm will be able to move to larger premises by the end of 2009.

Compared with the problems faced by the firm in 1998, finding new offices seems a relatively minor issue. Mishcon hung on and survived Diana to report record PEP figures in 2007. With Gold hoping to smash that record at this financial year-end, the firm appears to be moving steadily up the legal hierarchy.