Son of the desert

Rodrigo Uría is vice-chairman of the Museo del Prado in Madrid, was banished to the Sahara Desert for two years in the 1960s for leading the student revolution at Madrid University and has Coca-Cola and full-strength Marlboros for breakfast.

He is also managing partner of Uría & Menéndez, Spain’s highest-grossing native law firm and member of the Slaughter and May best friends network.

These are excellent credentials given that the 300-lawyer firm was composed of five lawyers when Uría started managing it in 1979. Perhaps it is because of his revolutionary past, but there is no indication that Uría has raised a firm that now sits at the top table of the legal profession through any sort of conventional behaviour.

We meet for breakfast at the Grosvenor House Hotel, where he urges me to order a croissant but himself plumps for nine Marlboros and a bottle of Coca-Cola. He is staying there after attending an industry bash where he collected a lifetime achievement award. The awards ceremony may be remembered for Uría’s unconventional acceptance speech, which just about brought the house down.

On collecting his gong, Uría thanked his mother and late father, founder of Uría & Menéndez, for supporting his career, and his wife “for being an exceptional sex partner”.

Uría chose to compliment his wife (who is 44, in case you thought he had bagged himself a young strumpet) in this manner in front of a room full of lawyers because he thought the ceremony was dragging on a bit and that people could do with some livening up.

As you would expect from the sex life revelations, Uría is certainly lively. It is not uncommon for senior lawyers to conduct an interview with Alan Shearer-like blandness; Uría, to mix one’s sporting personality metaphors, is more like Muhammad Ali, such is his capacity for answering safe work-related questions with memorable, if unusual and obscure, allegory.

Take Linklaters, the firm Uría & Menéndez considered merging with in the late 1990s until they fell out over Latin American strategy. Uría says the problem is most easily illustrated in terms of flowers.

“[Linklaters] saw Latin America as a field filled with flowers, and these flowers were issuers, you know?” Well, not exactly, but we’ll stick with it. “And I saw Latin America still as a field filled with plenty of flowers, but these flowers were active companies, and not only issuers of securities work.”

Uría then turns his attention to showtime. “A lot of the time, [managing] the firm is very similar to a West End musical in which all the people dancing are Liza Minelli” he says.

What he is referring to is that much of his time is taken up, as he puts it, “arbitrating” between lawyers, because they all think they are the star of the show.

Worried that I have failed to catch his drift, Uría conjures up another illustration.

“You know,” he adds, “it’s like an orchestra full of Yehudi Menuhins. What I mean is I manage a group of prima donnas. All the lawyers are prima donnas.”

This can be filed under lame journalistic segue 107, but perhaps the reason Uría uses such pictorial language is because he is a genuine art lover. Uría is a keen collector of avant-garde painting and, as vice-chairman of the Prado, he says he is “very at home in the artistic world”.

Uría got this second job through his status as the favoured adviser to the Spanish government throughout most of its administrations since the early 1980s.

Like many student revolutionaries, Uría has realised with age that you have to be in it to win it, and his closeness to power cannot be underestimated.

In 1986, Uría provided the Spanish government with pro bono advice on retrieving a Goya painting that had been exported illegally from Spain. His prize was the trusteeship of the Prado. He then repaid the government for the Prado job all over again by advising it on the Kingdom of Spain’s purchase of Baron Thyssen’s enormous art collection.

Recently, Uría committed the time of eight lawyers at his firm, including a senior partner, to taking the Spanish government, again pro bono, through what could be years of litigation arising from the sinking of the Prestige supertanker off the Galician coast. Prestige was registered in the Bahamas, owned by a Liberian company and managed in Athens. The cargo of oil was being shipped for a Russian company with its headquarters in Switzerland. It will be a long haul finding the responsible party. Uría has committed his firm to getting everyone involved in front of a judge in New York and fighting from there. He expects the firm’s financial contribution to be upwards of e2m (£1.4m).

“We cannot earn money out of this national catastrophe when there are thousands of volunteers on the beaches,” he says, referring to the Spanish citizens who are currently clearing up the environmental damage inflicted on Galicia by the sinking of Prestige.

So, student revolutionary to government stooge? Not a bit.

Just to prove he can still be a thorn in the establishment’s side when he thinks it is justified, Uría goes on to complain about the Spanish government’s recent overhaul of Spanish corporate law.

There has been a raft of new laws and regulations which, Uría says, the government has pushed through too quickly, resulting in a mass of contradictory legislation.

“The law in Spain is changing too quickly,” he explains. “Legislation is something that lasts a long time and I think that the government and the regulators are going too fast because they’re producing laws completely based on conjuncture – you know, for the moment. The law has to be built to last. We have a new law on finance, then another law on takeover reform, then a reform of the regulators.

“My idea is that all of this should have been put together in one body, not including any contradictions between one law and another.”

These are words Uría has already said to the government ministers he comes into regular contact with, and they have listened carefully to his views.

Uría says he gave up his political radicalism upon joining his father’s firm in the late 1970s, “because I wanted to embark on my professional career and saw it as incompatible to have a political militancy”. But he is now in the best position a 1960s protestor could have hoped for. He has got away with his love of unconventional behaviour and now has the ear of the government. Which must be a lot nicer than being banished to the desert.
Rodrigo Uria
Managing partner
Uria & Menendez