The pearly queen
10 December 2001
Let's start with a quick word association game. Withers - what does that firm bring to mind? Green wellies and Englishness? Tweeds and pearls?
Ironically, and perhaps with that English tongue-in-cheek humour, Withers senior partner Diana Parker is wearing a tweed suit and a string of pearls on the day we meet. A very unschoolma'am-style suit, but tweed nevertheless.
But then, she can afford to pander to some stereotypes, as her firm has completely overturned the market's expectations of Withers by signing a US merger deal in the last week.
I think it is safe to say that, anyone outside the firm who claims to have predicted that the private client operation would be the next to bag a US partner in the big transatlantic hunt, is telling fibs.
But then Withers is a strange firm - entirely traditional in its external image, but groundbreaking in reality. It was the first City firm to appoint a female senior partner -something that is still so unusual that our freelance photographer at first assumed Parker to be the PR woman and the PR manager, Nigel Sprunt, to be the senior partner.
As a neat piece of symbolism, the newish Withers offices in Old Bailey consist of a listed rococo frontage with a whizzy new glass building hiding behind, a great change from its discreet but old-fashioned former home. Indeed, Parker fits into the mould as well: well-spoken and looking like a woman who might do a lot of charity work, but obviously fiercely bright and ambitious.
For 18 months Withers has been in negotiations with 15-partner New York private client firm Bergman Horowitz & Reynolds. And for all that time, not a whisper has escaped into the marketplace until it was press-released last week.
If I were an international superstar with an embarrassing divorce coming up, I'd choose Withers for its ability to resist winebar gossip.
When I tell Parker that the news came as a bolt out of the blue, she smiles and says that she's glad. "I'm very impressed at the support we've had within the firm for keeping it under wraps," she replies. "There's been a tacit agreement that we know that they [assistants] know, but that any leak could really queer the deal.
"It went against the grain for me, because I don't like a lot of secrecy about. I'd much prefer to be open, but we had a nod-and-a-wink agreement that everybody knew, but we couldn't acknowledge that we all knew."
The news had to leak out from the partnership into the rest of the firm because assistants were required to work on the deal, which will see the firm becoming the first practice of its size to convert to UK limited liability partnership (LLP) status.
Again, you probably would not have put much money on Withers being the trailblazer in that respect either. But more of that later.
Parker says the firm was almost superstitious about the merger going wrong. "We had our first discussions on 4 July last year, so we codenamed it 'Project Independence'. That meeting took place in Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed, so it was all terribly portentous. With so much heavy symbolism around, it was thought that it couldn't possibly work."
But work it did and the partnership vote on the idea of merger in principle went through in January, with the final vote on 7 November. The firms had come to know one another over a number of years, but the future of the New York firm came to the top of the agenda recently due to senior partner Stanley Bergman coming up to retirement age.
Withers has decided to go fully international, because, as Parker explains, its clients are now global, and jetsetters do not recognise national boundaries - they are children of the world. The work is also becoming a lot more commercial, and the hook-up with Bergman will also help that aspect, as US private client work uses corporate structures as often as trust structures.
"International wealth means a link with the US even if [the family] does not involve an American citizen," says Parker. "Let's say a Middle Eastern family may have a child who's been to Eton or Harrow, but another one who's been to Harvard or Yale. Many families will like to have a member who's a US citizen, partly for security, and the US does dominate the world, as recent events have shown. For successful people, it's almost impossible to treat the world as excluding America."
Another part of the new international jigsaw that Withers has been quietly building is the recruitment of Joe Field, currently head of international private client work at US firm Bryan Cave, who will be joining in the New Year. Parker says that what made him especially attractive was that he has years of experience of working in London but advising on US law.
And as if that was not enough, the merged firm will then turn its sights to opening a Swiss office and one on the US West Coast, with Los Angeles being the most likely choice.
Parker also intends to turn the firm's representative office in Milan into a fully-staffed practice, claiming that Withers has the most Italian speakers of any firm in the City. You see only some of its clients speak with plums in their mouths, although I guess a Milan office could be quite handy for client Sarah Ferguson if she ever decides to marry her Italian count.
Strangely enough, Italy and the US have a similar approach to private client work and it is one that Withers wants to promote in London too.
"The greatest difference [with private client work in the US] is that, almost by definition, it includes their business affairs as well. That's one thing that's a real plus for me," says Parker. "We're unusual in that, while we're a City firm, we're not focused on corporate work."
The approach is the same in Italy, where the family influence in business means that Mr Benetton and Mr Fiat are still around and involved in the multinationals they created, so their lawyers remain the same, whether they are sorting out a trust or doing a deal. The former company is also on Withers' books.
So why did Parker decide to make her life even more complicated by pushing for LLP status at the same time?
"It seemed too good an opportunity to miss to convert to LLP," she says. "In the US, they've had it for a long time. I've always thought that LLP status would benefit not only partners in the firm, but also clients, because one is not so reluctant to take on risk.
"I'm sure that [other firms] are queuing up behind us, but the sheer exhaustion factor in changing the structure is holding them back. Firms have wanted other firms to go first to iron out the glitches."
One plus point, says Parker, is that the corporate team can now hold themselves out as experts on putting together LLPs. The structure that Withers has opted for is uniquely complicated, however, because the New York arm is keeping its own LLP status. Being one of the very few firms that has taken the plunge has meant Withers has been stretching the Law Society in its quest to find out how to interpret the legislation. The Law Society has yet to rubber stamp the LLP, but Parker is hoping that by going public with the deal, it will have to put its skates on to avoid embarrassment.
One line has caused the corporate guys no end of trouble.
The legislation says that the LLP should include the "same partners who are, or who are to be, partners", as in the old structure. No one was clear as to what "are to be" meant - should the firm hold back from making up people or should it go ahead?
At the same time as dealing with all those shenanigans, Parker has also managed to keep up her divorce practice. On average, she still bills 1,000 hours a year (about 19 hours a week), which she is keen to continue.
"I very much enjoy my job and I also think it's quite healthy to keep up a practice," she muses. "I don't think lawyers should become full-time managers, but over the last few months it's been very tricky. I've been enormously supported by assistants in my own department who have taken on a much heavier burden than was reasonable to expect."
Her sector specialisation has also helped, because clients going through a divorce expect their life to be a bit topsy-turvy and so don't become upset if Parker telephones them at 10pm.
On showing me out, Parker reflects that writing this page must be a bit like the initial meetings with clients in her job. We both get to meet new people and form instant opinions, which is, as Parker says, very enjoyable. But fortunately for me, I don't then have to hold their hand as their lives fall apart.