The kids are alright
12 November 2001
There is a small but growing band of Arsenal FC supporters living in a San Salvador children's home that have Andrew Astachowicz to thank for their devotion to the North London football club.
"El Salvador is one place where I can pretend to be a football expert," the new recruit at Marriott Harrison admits. "And spread the Arsenal gospel." It is a good job that Astachowicz does not support my home team, Bristol City, as I am sure encouraging children in developing countries to follow the Robins would probably fall foul of the Geneva Convention.
Officially, I am talking to Astachowicz about his move from the Altheimer & Gray London office that he helped found; but while enthusiastic about his new home at Marriott Harrison and his work as a property lawyer, the subject of El Salvador really gets him going.
The connection came through his work with Amnesty International during the country's bloody civil war that raged throughout the 1980s. Eventually he came to a decision with his wife that they could do more, and so they decided to adopt three El Salvadorian children.
"We decided that there was a great need there for that sort of help for children who'd been orphaned, or who had parents in a situation where they were having children but weren't able to form stable relationships because of the man going off to fight," explains Astachowicz.
Without wanting to make him sound like the Mother Teresa of the legal world, Astachowicz continues to support children in San Salvador through raising money for a safe house for street kids in the city, called Amor. Which gives him direct access to young minds ready to receive the Arsenal gospel.
The Astachowicz household is nothing if not international. As his surname suggests, Astachowicz is the son of Polish parents who moved to Yorkshire after World War II. There he became part of a tightly-knit Polish community, which was "like The Deer Hunter but with woollen mills", and only learnt to speak English at school.
"My secretary would complain that I still haven't grasped the finer details of the language," he laughs. He adds that, as part of his Polish community upbringing, he belonged to a Polish scout troop that would go off to Pwllheli on camp every year to sit around a fire singing traditional Polish songs, one of which involved jumping over an imitation axe.
So what did the Welsh make of the troop? "They viewed us as only another sort of culture that is deeply rooted in the rural and drinking culture," is Astachowicz's tongue in cheek reply.
It was Astachowicz's Polish roots that partly contributed to his career move from Eversheds to Altheimer. He was headhunted by Altheimer, which has a large presence in Eastern Europe, after getting to know the Warsaw office of the firm, and his Polish language skills were viewed as highly valuable in what has rapidly become a booming market for Anglo-Saxon lawyers. The work was a long way from the first professional use of his mother tongue, which was used trying to talk drunken Polish sailors out of applying for asylum when they arrived at the London docks. That particular task fell to Astachowicz when he was an articled clerk at what is now Duthie Hart & Duthie, earning overtime by typing out scores of summonses connected to digging for bait without a licence on the banks of the Thames.
Fearing that a move to Warsaw could prove one culture shock too far for his children, Astachowicz opted to stay in London and not follow the trail of lawyers moving over.
His ancestry also helped Astachowicz in his latest career move. He took over the role of secretary of the British-Polish Association from Duncan Innes, a corporate partner at Marriott Harrison, who has been a friend for a long time.
After more than two years at Altheimer, Astachowicz was looking to move on. "The office originally started off with myself and Rob Bata, and has now grown to 45 lawyers and a total staff of around 80-90," he explains. "That aspect of what I'd been asked to do had been completed and I was facing a watershed in what I was going to do next." After setting up the office from scratch, Astachowicz found that his role was increasingly being defined in terms of recruitment, avoiding money laundering and the sorts of things that naturally fall to a partner setting up a new
"Sometimes it's easier to break out and move on to where you're looking at a different role," he says of his decision to leave. By the time he left, he was doing around two-thirds management to one-third fee-earning, and I get the impression that he is eager to start concentrating more on the latter.
The new role at Marriott Harrison should be fairly wide open for Astachowicz. The firm is known traditionally as a media firm but has recently started on a drive to widen the practice into a more general corporate-based one.
Astachowicz will be working with head of property Vivienne Elson to build the department out into the areas that he has experience in, namely the property needs of technology and industrial clients.
And, of course, clients looking into Poland, although Astachowicz says the chances of Marriott Harrison opening a Warsaw office are negligible, partly because the market is now saturated and more importantly because it would be too expensive for the 10-partner firm. But he is confident that he can profit from the second wave of companies entering Poland, which would not feel comfortable instructing one of the legal big boys.
Astachowicz obviously thrives on new challenges and was partly attracted to Marriott Harrison by the prospect of being able to build a fledgling department. "What I've enjoyed over the last three years is the ability to get involved in meeting a completely new set of challenges, which was completely different to what I was doing at Eversheds. The opportunity to set up a completely new office is actually quite rare and my own personal skills set has been very much advanced."
But, at the end of the day, property law is not where Astachowicz's heart is. When switching the conversation into property law, Astachowicz loses some of his spark and almost seems disappointed to have to change the subject.
That is not to say that he is bored by it, just that he seems to work to live, not live to work. His heart is lost to San Salvador, which he says gives him a reason to come into work on a Monday morning.
"One feels privileged to be a lawyer and earn a very good living when you go to these places and see the reality of people's lives," he says.
He finishes by asking whether he can plug the charity, which those of you reading closely will notice I have already done.