Mover and shaker
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30 October 2013
When I arrived at Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft's new offices on the Strand, senior partner of the London office Stephen Mostyn-Williams was engaging in cheery banter with The Lawyer's photographer and thoroughly enjoying the posing process. I hung around for a bit. At one point, they left the building in search of a more aesthetic background and I wondered whether they would ever come back. After a while, Mostyn-Williams returned clutching a copy of Private Eye, giggling over the Colemanballs. He seemed laid back and at ease.
That is, until I mentioned swimming trunks as an opening gambit. The first of many pointed silences ensued and I guessed immediately that I had gaffed with my first question. Mostyn-Williams has been profiled before - in a swimming pool - and by all accounts the outcome was not to his liking. I had been warned in a Basil Fawlty-style "don't mention Ashurst Morris Crisp". So after some backtracking on my part, we moved on to subjects unrelated to clothes.
First, some history. Mostyn-Williams was brought up on the south coast, and like all good Jane Austen heroes, he claims to have had well-defined career options. "My father was a doctor," he says. "And basically, the options were something along the lines of you went into the army, the church or the professions." Of these, Mostyn-Williams toyed with the idea of joining the army. Try as I might, I can't imagine this dapper, chino-wearing man being interviewed in military fatigues. Nor is it possible to envisage him taking too many orders.
I am not at all convinced that the Mostyn-Williams I met was the real deal. He had clearly decided to play things as straight as possible, which is a shame, because he is reputed to be one of the more entertaining members of the profession. Perhaps he has appearances to keep up now that he is senior partner of Cadwalader's London office.
At times Mostyn-Williams does let his guard down and becomes lively, charming and enthusiastic about his subject. Talking about business-building unleashes a torrent of words, but other subjects turn the interview into a bizarre Harold Pinter play, punctuated by lengthy silences. Mostyn-Williams will smile, his blue eyes will twinkle, but divulge he will not. Still, as the interview progresses he begins to warm up and physically unravel, having begun it with both arms and legs defensively crossed.
Mostyn-Williams has been portrayed as something of a restless soul, particularly for an itchy feet period since leaving Ashursts in 1998. He counters: "I don't put myself into the serial mover camp. There's been a certain amount of press coverage about how long is Stephen going to stay at Cadwalader? I think if you look at my record, I was a partner at Barlow Lyde & Gilbert for five or six years and I was a partner at Ashursts for seven years. I think the fact that, at the end of 15 years or more of really building a business from nothing to what it was, I decided to say 'enough', is reasonable."
Mostyn-Williams was articled at Travers Smith Braithwaite and then moved to Barlows as a property assistant, joining a nascent commercial department comprising one property partner and one corporate partner. At Barlows, ambition kicked in. Enthused by the pervading spirit of the age, Mostyn-Williams decided that he was going to build a banking practice. In itself this is not a strange idea against a backdrop of mid-1980s flux in the City. What did raise eyebrows was the idea that this could be achieved at Barlows. Mostyn-Williams recalls that he was aware of the incongruity, but not fazed by it.
"This was the go-go '80s," he says. "It was very much if you want it, you can make it work. I think if somebody had said to me then, 'By the year 2000 you'll have a practice that will rank number one', I'd have thought that was pretty bizarre." He pauses and then continues: "Certainly, I never had any ambitions in that way. My principal ambition was really just to be successful, and successful meant doing deals and building a business. I like building businesses."
It is this ability to conjure something from nothing by sheer hard work and his indefatigable spirit of enterprise that presumably appealed to Cadwalader. He argues that it is ironic he should now be focused on for developing strategies because, when he was growing something from nothing at Barlows, he was working almost on instinct rather than from a scripted plan. He was also helped by supportive colleagues. "I was very lucky in the early stages of my career because I had a couple of individuals who were... we'd use the term mentor today, but it wasn't in such common usage then," he says.
He singles out John Humphreys at Travers Smith and Charles Hopkins at Barlows as being essential to his development as a rounded lawyer. "[Hopkins] supported me throughout all the things I was trying to do, because realistically at the time, building up a banking business from scratch at a firm specialising in insurance litigation was quite a novel proposition," he says. He remains adamant that he had no doubts that he would be successful.
Mostyn-Williams asserts that his moves have generally been prompted by clients. Having built a leveraged buyout (LBO) business with clients, including Bankers Trust and Crédit Agricole while at Barlows, certain clients suggested that the go-go 1980s were drawing to a close and that the market could turn. They thought that Barlows was not necessarily the best place for them. Mostyn-Williams had to find a practice with sufficient corporate and tax capabilities to service his clients. So he joined Ashursts and, after a very public falling out, swapped that bastion of English conservatism for Shearman & Sterling, taking almost his entire acquisition finance team with him in the process.
Success came almost too quickly at Shearmans. It was the height of the LBO market and his team already achieved in just a single year what Mostyn-Williams had predicted would take three. It handled two-thirds of all completed LBOs in one year and boasted an illustrious client list, from Goldman Sachs to Deutsche.
But there was too much work; and so an exhausted Mostyn-Williams was forced to turn clients away, at which point decision time loomed. He decided to get away from full-time lawyering and became managing director of investment fund AIG-MezzVest and joined PricewaterhouseCoopers' legal arm Landwell as a business development consultant.
But the lure of business-building was all too much. After 18 months away from private practice, and having considered a number of options (although he is coy about naming specific firms), Mostyn-Williams plumped for Cadwalader.
The parallels are striking. Like Mostyn-Williams, Cadwalader has had its fair share of negative press. ("I think they've come to terms with their history," he says.) For Mostyn-Williams, the same degree of catharsis is not yet in evidence. His brushes with the press have clearly left him slightly suspicious. Although he counts numerous journalists among his friends and keeps all clippings related to him, Mostyn-Williams is not ready to share everything with me.
Given more time I suspect Mostyn-Williams' innate ability to charm would have outweighed his remaining diffidence. As the interview draws to a close he does disclose that he is a countryman at heart and would still hunt if he had a horse. This more personal Mostyn-Williams surfaced too late. Maybe if I hadn't brought up swimming trunks right at the beginning I would have won him over sooner.
Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft