Stuart Popham, global head of finance at Clifford Chance, is calm about his new role in a firm which is poised to become the world’s largestpractice.
In his new role, Popham will graduate from head of banking to his post-Rogers & Wells and Punder Volhard Weber & Axster role as one of five global practice heads.
But since Popham has been with Clifford Chance as “boy and man”, the change in jobs is, to him, just another step up the ladder in a 24-year run at the firm: “It is a job for life, with any luck,” he says.
And while Popham admits he has thought of moving to other firms in the past, he says, “I have never been sufficiently tempted.”
In fact, Popham has left his beloved Clifford Chance just once – and that was to go to the firm’s Singapore office for three years during the 1980s.
But while Popham may sound like the law profession’s answer to The Stepford Wives, especially when he speaks of the training he has received from the firm, his relaxed, down to earth nature allows him to laugh at himself and his new fancy job title. “The title we are trying to get to is leader of the finance practice,” he says with a wry smile.
But given his devotion to Clifford Chance, it is perhaps surprising that Popham was not a member of the merger negotiation team.
One industry source says Popham had to be won round to the idea of the firm making such a significant move to the US. But Popham insists: “I’m no pushover. Once it was described to me and it was understood, I was very keen.
“He says he was happy with his place on the periphery of the talks since hewas able to act as a trial partner, giving feedback on how he thought thetalks were going and what proposals would be acceptable.
In fact, it was a good position to be in. “Some people did not have aweekend at home for some time. Keeping my distance enabled me to do that. I mean, you can’t have a negotiating team of 25,” he says.
Overall, Popham says that both sets of talks have been surprisingly smooth. However, he does allude to a couple of areas that ruffled his usually laid back demeanour. Of the Rogers & Wells merger, Popham says: “There were undoubtedly some tensions but it was much, much easier than people had expected – there weren’t any nasty surprises.”
He adds: “Every merger needs to have some degree of luck, but it alsoneeds good first instincts. We were pretty sure of what we were looking for.” But the most nerve-wracking time was taking the final merger proposal to the partners.
“We didn’t want to put ourselves before the whole world and then fall flat on our face [but] it was quite an amazing time – there was huge enthusiasm.”
But he remains undaunted as he outlines what his new role requires.”It is about strategic management. We have 1,000 lawyers who need to be co-ordinated.”
He says: “The guys at Punders and Rogers & Wells have studied us – we are willing parties.
“But we are going to have to make doubly sure that we perform well because we run the risk in the next year or so that if we are not living up to our publicity, the clients will decide with their feet and that would be unfortunate.”
It is this focus that has earned Popham his reputation.
An industry source comments: “Stuart is regarded as a very sensible commercial lawyer. He is well regarded by his own firm, as shown by the job title he has recently received. People like dealing with him.”
But to debunk the myth of the serious lawyer, Popham mysteriously says of Clifford Chance’s merger celebration: “Put it this way, we had a longnight. If you were a guest in the Savoy that night you might have wondered what all the noise was about.”
Global head of finance