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5 November 2013
Tony Wollenberg, co-founder and senior partner of City firm Rakisons, is a man renowned for bringing his well-practised poker face from the casino to the boardroom. According to one former colleague, his poker death stare has helped in many negotiations - further assisted, presumably, by the tank of exotic fish swimming hypnotically to and fro in his office.
"I have always been fascinated by the psychology of gamblers and the business side of it. Being able to sit down at a table with 10 complete strangers and assess their strengths and weaknesses very quickly - that's a skill that's pretty important in just about every walk of life."
Wollenberg has 20 years of specialist experience in gaming law. He is also a former chairman of spread betting group City Index and is now chief executive of the Zetters pools business.
No doubt his entry into the last Vegas (poker) World Series was a useful warm-up for Rakisons' merger talks with Washington DC firm Steptoe & Johnson. Talks are in the final stages and the two hope to complete the merger on 1 October.
The news follows a string of failed merger attempts since 1992, as 14-partner Rakisons faced up to the increasingly popular notion that the days of smaller commercial firms were numbered.
Wollenberg says: "Having preached for 20 years that size doesn't matter and quality does, I have realised over the past few years that size is important - not per se, but because clients believe size matters. It is an unshakeable belief and you have to cater to it. Those that don't reinvent themselves will fall by the wayside. Real quality work becomes that much harder to attract if you're not a household name."
In late 1992, talks began with major US player Morgan Lewis & Bockius. According to Robert Rakison, who decided to quit for the US firm after the talks collapsed, a cocktail party helped sound the death knell of the merger - during the evening, the then Morgan Lewis chairman Alan Reed asked Wollenberg how long he had been with the firm. Enough said. "Morgan Lewis weren't the right firm for us," is all that Wollenberg will say.
His friendship with Rakison proved far more durable, and the pair continue to share a mutual admiration.
The tale of mergers was continued last year when talks with Stephens Innocent showed promise. This time Rakisons was left smarting after its intended partner announced it would instead join Finers, which advised on the merger talks.
Talks with US firm LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae also broke down at a late stage in February this year, after Rakisons' head of telecoms Chris Hoyle left for KLegal. LeBoeufs had been looking for a telecoms and IP/IT practice.
This time Wollenberg is confident of the match with Steptoe & Johnson. "We have had a constant eye on this kind of opportunity and as we got to know the firm better over the last few months the logic grew on us. It grew on both sides." The merger will mark a new era for Rakisons and, on the face of it, appears something of a betrayal of its origins as an independent firm.
Wollenberg set up the firm with Rakison in July 1979. During articles, training and post-qualification experience at Goodman Derrick & Co, Wollenberg was inspired by the great Lord Goodman, but quickly grew frustrated with the then establishment mentality of the business.
"I decided pretty early on that setting up my own operation would be the most exciting route rather than joining another set-up," says Wollenberg. Lunches with Rakison, then a senior associate at Travers Smith Braithwaite, confirmed that he was not alone in his distaste for a world that placed greater weight on the old school tie than on merit.
Their decision to set up Rakisons at a Chancery Lane address Wollenberg fondly remembers as an "attic" was ground-breaking in more ways than one. "What we really tried to create was a niche firm, a corporate finance boutique," says Rakison. Their aim was to bridge the huge divide between the "West End cowboys" and the "toffee nosed City", he says. It was a new concept.
The firm's single name - another novelty matched only by Freshfields and Gouldens at the time - owed much to the lingering anti-Semitic climate; Wollenberg insisted that the firm take the name Rakisons rather than his own Jewish name. Among other things, it was thought that Rakisons would be less susceptible to misspelling. As compensation, Wollenberg's name always came first on the firm's headed notepaper and he got the bigger office.
Wollenberg and Rakison also broke from the pack in their professional style. "It was so unusual at that time to go to clients and ask what they wanted to achieve and try to achieve it for them," says Rakison.
The firm's history of doing it the US way will surely sweeten the departure from the firm's roots. Wollenberg says: "There are very few firms of our size left in the City. We had to decide whether to be the exception that proved the rule or to go with the flow. Merging with a UK firm was not the answer. Merging with a US firm was. In many ways the firm is more like a US than a UK firm."
It is not a decision Rakisons has taken lightly. "It was critical to make the right choice. Everyone's futures are at stake," Wollenberg says. But while he predicts little cultural change for Rakisons' staff, there will be some changes for the firm.
The London firm's telecoms, IT and corporate disciplines will undoubtedly receive a boost, and the service to clients will speed up as delays on transatlantic transactions become a thing of the past. More lateral hires are also likely to follow. With Steptoe & Johnson on board Wollenberg says the firm will attract those who might previously have seen Rakisons as a "no-brainer choice".
Wollenberg is also looking forward to having the big financial punch brought by having the US firm on its side. "We've never had a resource issue either in terms of staff or finances, but having their might behind us will be a major plus."
Co-founder and senior partner