Pinsents makes a case for variety and looks to shake off its ‘nice’ rep
12 September 2010 | By Luke McLeod-Roberts
And it’s adamant there’s more to its outsourcing team than public sector.
There are certain themes that tend to crop up when Pinsent Masons’ outsourcing team is discussed in the market.
“They’re very nice people to have a drink with,” comments one partner at a competitor firm. “[They’ve done] very well in the public sector in the past couple of years.”
“They come across as nice, and have generally been public sector,” adds a partner at another practice.
In most walks of life being a nice person is not a hindrance, but often references to a lawyer’s geniality can be interpreted as a comment on their lack of brio at the negotiating table.
This was certainly a concern of Selene Brett, head of legal at insurer Royal London, when she was looking for a firm to handle a complex outsourcing deal stemming from her company’s part in Pearl’s £5bn acquisition of closed life funds group Resolution.
Panel firm Pinsents had a longstanding relationship with the Edinburgh outpost of Royal London, having handled procurement, contractual, brand and date protection work for subsidiaries Scottish Life and Bright Grey. But Brett felt that it was “quite a big risk” appointing it for a group matter of such strategic significance.
“I’d met [insurance head] John Salmon and I couldn’t imagine him in an adversarial scenario,” she admits, adding that she sought the views of her colleagues in Edinburgh who had had dealings with him. “The people I asked just laughed and said, ’You wait and see’.”
Having decided to appoint Pinsents, her experiences of working with Salmon eventually backed up those of her colleagues.
“He’s hugely professional and very well-prepared and he’ll absolutely fight your corner,” she states. “There were very tight deadlines, but the Pinsents team had great project management - they delivered and took control. They’ve universally impressed the business, which isn’t easy to do. Pinsents would be an obvious choice for us if there was a similar project, [and] its fees compare extremely well.”
This kind of endorsement should send a chill down the spines of the firm’s competitors in the financial services sector, mainly US outfits such as Latham & Watkins, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy and Morrison Foerster. But somehow Pinsents has failed to get the message out where it matters.
“We’ve been picking up reasonable deals, [but] we’re certainly not picking up strategic deals - that’s our challenge,” confesses practice head Clive Seddon. “I’m saying to our lawyers, ’If we can do strategic deals in government, energy and insurance, why not in banking?’”
The firm’s strong reputation in the public sector is not difficult to fathom. Headline deals include advising the Cabinet Office on a framework agreement for sharing IT services between Government departments and acting for the Department for Work and Pensions on a major outsourcing deal.
Nevertheless, the firm’s central government team head David Isaac still feels the public sector branding is somewhat misplaced.
“I’m always perplexed that we’re seen as just public sector,” he says. “It’s important, but we also fiercely compete with DLA Piper and Field Fisher Waterhouse. In the early 1980s the first outsourcing deals we did were for BAE Systems and ICI.” The firm continues to work with BAE.
Pinsents is anxious to alter this perception and has outlined a plan for winning strategic work in the financial services sector.
First, it has embarked on a mini-hiring spree, bringing on board senior associates Tom Brown, who joined from Addleshaw Goddard and who has worked on card payment systems with retail banks and previously worked at outsourcing giant Accenture, and Andrew Brydon from Simmons & Simmons.
Later this month Mike Pierides will join as a partner from Milbank. Pierides’ value is not just in his heritage at a firm more likely to be associated with the financial services sector, but also his relationship with Barclays - seen by many as being at the forefront of harnessing IT to deliver financial products.
And Pierides also thinks the perception of Pinsents as a public sector brand is misleading.
“Look at a firm like Milbank,” he says. “[It did] the national programme for IT for the NHS, and yet no one would brand Milbank as public sector. It’s very much a perception issue.”
What he feels really differentiates his former firm from Pinsents is not their expertise nor the hours (which are extensive wherever you work), but the breadth of work at his new home, as well as the respective business models, which he says are like chalk and cheese.
While Seddon admits that Pinsents pays less than US firms, he thinks he can offer substantial career opportunities. He talks not only of the broad practice areas, but also of his firm’s ’Atlas’ client relationship programme, which allows junior lawyers contact with clients even after a deal finishes.
In addition to the hiring programme, Pinsents is upping its number of secondments to banks, the only problem with this being that these individuals often get poached by the clients.
Seddon believes that the firm’s move next spring from three buildings scattered across London into a single site close to Liverpool Street will make a difference.
“When we put ourselves in a single site right next to Herbert Smith and Reed Smith, people will appreciate we’ve got this strength and depth,” he says. “We need all our lawyers together. We’ve always had a very diverse practice - we’ve got public sector, we’re key suppliers to Fujitsu and we have insurance expertise too. We’ve always done work in the financial services sector - for Standard Chartered Bank and Bank of Ireland – but we’re just not known for it.
“And journalists and competitors like to give us labels,” he complains.
So how would Seddon like Pinsents to be regarded?
“We don’t fit into a particular box as a law firm - it’s a challenge for us to explain that to our clients,” he says. “We don’t have a one-firm brand - we’re a mixture of brands in our sectors. Pinsent [Curtis Biddle] was historically more based around corporate, while Masons was about construction, IT and sourcing. I think it’s a strength in this market to be known for a variety of things.”
That makes commercial sense, so long as one of those things is not being ’nice’.