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20 September 2013
"Ties and humour" are what Peter Schwartz says he is bringing to Baker & McKenzie from US firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.
The firm's newly recruited insurance partner and neckwear enthusiast is sporting a natty yellow and green stripy number that is pleasing to the eye.
But the humour is harder to detect in Schwartz's hangdog air. However, this doleful demeanour turns out to produce a deadpan delivery. Schwartz, whose family came to the UK from Hungary after the war, explains that he is one of a long line of lawyers.
"My great-grandfather was a distinguished lawyer to the Emperor Franz Joseph. But unfortunately he couldn't pass that dynasty on to me as a client, so I am working in liability, insurance and reinsurance," he says flatly.
Schwartz used to keep a book recording ludicrous and pretentious correspondence from colleagues and clients. His new partners at Baker & McKenzie will be pleased to hear the book was lost last year, but he warns: "I've often thought of reviving it."
However, there is not much to laugh about for insurance lawyers at the moment, with companies slashing their panels of law firms.
Schwartz has been witness to these market changes since beginning his career the 1970s.
After studying law at Leeds University, Schwartz went in-house at Lloyd's brokers and insurers Alexander Howden before leaving with Alexander Howden's senior lawyers to set up boutique insurance firm Reynolds Johnson & Green. He joined Sonnenscheins in 1995.
He says that what is happening now in insurance is similar to the convergence that has happened in the banking and financial services sectors.
Schwartz's response to the shrinking insurance market was to leave Sonnenscheins, where he was head of insurance and reinsurance, as he could no longer service his clients effectively.
"Sonnenscheins is very strong in the US but has a minimal presence on this side of the Atlantic and in my area that became a weakness," he says. He decided that "a strong international practice like Baker & McKenzie was definitely the best way forward" to serve clients in an increasingly global industry.
He says there was "nothing radically different" about working in a US firm's London office, but the office suffered from a lack of autonomy.
"It may be difficult if the management are a long way away, because you need the day to day interaction with your partners. That shouldn't be underestimated.
"It's not just a criticism of Sonnenscheins; it's a weakness in all firms who manage extensively from a central headquarters without allowing sufficient local discretion to get on with things."
As well as arriving with his own brand of humour, Schwartz will be bringing his clients with him - including AXA, C&A and Royal & SunAlliance - a fact he was forthright in telling The Lawyer (7 June).
But this refreshing honesty is no big deal to Schwartz: "I was asked the question and I don't think there's any particular secret about this - I was just trying to be helpful."
Schwartz was brought up in west London, but came close to being born in the US. His family came to the UK from Hungary en route to the US, where they intended to settle, but they liked England so much they stayed.
In response to the suggestion that post-war London must have been grim compared with the booming affluence of the US at the time, he says: "The people were friendly, and if you were leaving war-ravaged central Europe and had lost your family and home and had not been able to complete your education, then England was a very welcoming place.
"Perhaps that's why I am an English lawyer."
As we finish the interview I tell Schwartz that a photographer will be coming to take his picture, at which his face brightens. "Oh, good. I'll wear a nice tie," he says.
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