The dude of tax
25 March 2002
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When Paddy Grafton Green was a very young tax lawyer back in 1971, his principal came in to tell him that he had a client waiting outside who wanted some tax advice. The visitor turned out to be one Mick Jagger, lead singer of a popular beat combo called the Rolling Stones, which you may have heard of.
He continued to represent Jagger until Theodore Goddard, the firm of which he is now senior partner, decided to drop its private client work back in 1997. Other megastars he has guided through the tax maze include the other Rolling Stones members, David Bowie, the members of Pink Floyd and Tina Turner. See how tax law is überglam, darling?
The funny thing is, unlike the likes of Keith Schilling of chi-chi law firm Schilling & Lom, Grafton Green does not immediately strike you as Mr Rock 'n' Roll. No open shirt, no permatan and distinctly un-hip Dennis Healey-esque eyebrows. I would put money on him not attending the infamous Rolling Stones parties - or if he did, making sure he was home to catch Crimewatch.
But he tells a good tale, which is perhaps why the stars came calling - a good raconteur could perhaps distract from the mind-numbing tedium of tax law minutiae. Obviously I mean that those flighty artistic types might find it a bit dull, but clearly, to anyone else, tax law is simply fascinating.
Fortunately for me, he shares a few of these tales with me; unfortunately for you, I cannot pass them on. As I obviously like to share everything with you, dear reader, I literally beg him to let me write down at least one of them. The lovely Grafton Green agrees, so here it is. He would not tell me the crucial name, but if you want to use it for dinner parties, just choose the personality that makes it the funniest.
At one time, Theodore Goddard had an ex-sergeant major on the reception who was a little old-fashioned. In walks a very famous black American singer wearing jeans and trainers. The sergeant major takes one look and asks her: "Have you come about the tea lady job?"
The really funny thing, says Grafton Green, is that the receptionist's attitude was the same as many of Theodore Goddard's rival firms, which viewed acting for members of the rock 'n' roll fraternity as dealing with the great unwashed.
Storytelling is obviously in Grafton Green's blood, as both his parents were journalists, which explains why he does not treat me as if I was carrying the Ebola virus. It is quite nice sometimes to meet people who do not consider journalists to be below traffic wardens in the evolutionary ladder.
His father was the editor of the Empire News, which was the northern version of the News of the World, and his mother wrote a column for the same paper and also one for Farmers Weekly.
So did he ever want to follow in their footsteps? "Having seen what it did to my parents, no. It was very interesting for them and great fun, and my father loved being in the public eye, but I didn't write well enough; I didn't inherit that," smiles Grafton Green.
Instead, his talents had skipped a generation. His grandfather had set up a law firm in Dublin called Maxwell Weldon & Darley, which still exists, albeit at a fraction of the size of Theodore Goddard, with around a dozen staff.
Becoming a lawyer was also a respectable thing to do.
Getting a professional qualification was all-important in
the 1960s, says Grafton Green. He clearly did not burn with desire to be a lawyer as he reflects that today's students are given a lot more encouragement and help to work out what really interests them. His own son, for example, is hoping to go into the music industry (and incidentally is not impressed by Dad having advised the Rolling Stones). If a certain Britney Spears had wanted to know about capital gains, however…
Nevertheless, he joined Theodore Goddard, where he has spent his entire career, because at the time the firm was acting for Kemsley Newspapers, which owned Empire News along with The Sunday Times.
"My only recollection [of applying for articles] was my father bringing me to lunch here and saying, 'This is my son', and the partner saying, 'I'm sure he'll do very well here'," he recalls. And that was that.
At the time, the firm was very different. For one thing, it had only 12 partners, all of whom always took lunch together, which would have to be a medieval-style banquet now that Theodore Goddard has 70 partners. It was then primarily a private client firm, and I am sure that the idea of the Yanks one day coming to court the firm would have both horrified and astounded the partners.
But Salans Hertzfeld & Heilbronn did make serious overtures, which were brought to an end last autumn. Like every negative business decision of the time, the breakdown of talks was put down to the events of 11 September. That explanation was widely interpreted as a polite way of explaining that Theodore Goddard had got pre-wedding cold feet. So why does Grafton Green believe the merger did not come off?
"We've thought about why the merger didn't work," he muses. "Unfortunately, Salans is quite a different firm from us, with a good-quality French office and good-quality Central European offices. I'm not sure about whether those Central European offices really work and I was getting to terms with how the Moscow office would work. The partners thought, 'Is it really going to add to the opportunities within the firm, and what will the cost be in gaining those opportunities for ourselves?'"
Now the firm has decided, says Grafton Green, to try and "pull together and remain together". It has now decided to have an international committee to scout Europe for new friends. Merger, however, is not on the immediate agenda. "Merger would lead to the painful process of weeding out people who don't fit in," explains Grafton Green. "That's what causes pain, unhappiness and tension. Why go through that if you can get teams buying in to the firm?"
It would seem that even failed merger talks bring their pain. Managing partner Peter Cooke has now stepped down, which Grafton Green says is merely because he decided he missed practising. And former managing partner Peter Kavanagh has decided to leave, having spearheaded the fruitless talks. Interestingly, announced at the same time was the exit of two corporate partners, both of whom are heading for - you've guessed it - a US firm, in the shape of Covington & Burling.
"It's quite clear to us that expansion remains an important target if we're going to be able to sustain a good corporate and banking practice," says Grafton Green. "We need to find individuals or teams of individuals. Maybe a merger, but we need to look at it in an extensive way."
Rather than reacting to opportunities as they come up, Grafton Green says that Theodore Goddard needs to seek them out.
Lovely as Grafton Green is, I do not hold out a huge amount of hope that the firm will take part in a big merger in the immediate future. The partnership has already backed out of two marriages within the last four years, and you get the feeling that it is enjoying its bachelorhood.
Also, Grafton Green seems to treasure the gentler working environment of his firm. "There's a recognition that as work gets bigger, work gets longer, but you can achieve a balance," he says. "It doesn't necessarily follow that you have to sacrifice what's important. Our aim is to provide top-class advice in a friendly and approachable way, but do you have to work 24 hours at a time to do that?"
Perhaps some Americans would answer "yes" to that one, but then most of them would not tell a fantastic story involving a chair and a diva. But then again, neither can I.
I'm sorry, but I promised.
Paddy Grafton Green
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