The City Lawyer's Tale
20 December 1999
Mergers had happened before, mergers would happen again. But the coming together of Clifford Turner and Coward Chance was different. It was an event that would change the UK's legal landscape and would later be the catalyst to a redrawing of the European and global legal maps.
In a quintessentially British, civilised way, it all happened over lunch. Indeed, if Coward Chance's Tom Johnson-Gilbert and Clifford Turner's Max Williams had known what was going to happen, they might well have ended up with indigestion. But changing history was the last thing on the two senior partners' minds. "The thing they had met at lunchtime to discuss was expansion outside the UK and whether some sort of joint venture would make sense," reveals Clark. "And the discussion very rapidly moved on to discussing a merger, because a limited form of joint venture was a very difficult thing to make work."
Both Johnson-Gilbert and Williams knew they had to do something. Their firms had grown prodigiously throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but were still struggling to cope with the increasingly rapid globalisation of the legal services market. The two senior partners, says Clark, could see "the need for considerably expanding numbers of lawyers, given the opportunities of setting up outside the UK, the opening up of Europe and the increasing importance of Brussels and the European markets...It was clear to both firms that their practices required a lot more investment and a lot more people. The merger in 1986-1987 was a response to that need."
However, not everyone was convinced that merger was the best way forward, and the Clifford Turner and Coward Chance partners took a lot of persuading. "When the partners were first introduced to the idea, there was an enormous amount of scepticism," remembers Clark, who took part in the merger negotiations. "But we had detailed working groups which had done a lot of work together and those groups had actually ended up being very close and having very effective working arrangements. When the product of the merger negotiations was put before the partners, there were intensive discussions and the practice areas were brought together and it got an absolutely resounding vote in favour."
Although Clifford Chance has since gone on to achieve great things, time has in some ways dimmed Johnson-Gilbert's and Williams' achievement. What they did back in the 1980s needs to be put into context. As Clark points out, the 1987 merger was revolutionary for its day. Nothing on that scale had ever been attempted in Europe or on the other side of the Atlantic, but the two senior partners possessed a quality of vision that is only rarely found in legal circles. Johnson-Gilbert and Williams were exceptional, acknowledges Clark: "They weren't so staid in their ways. Each of them had fostered a development of their own firms. They recognised that the demands being made by the market were outstripping their own capacity to respond to it and that the only thing that could respond to it was a quantum leap. That requires flexible thinking."
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