10 September 2007
Ashurst senior partner Geoffrey Green and managing partner Simon Bromwich are quite the double act. On paper, the two are chalk and cheese: Green is the effusive ideas man while Bromwich is the archetypal litigator with an eye for detail. Green quips to Bromwich's deadpan. But like the best double acts, theirs is a combination that works despite itself.
On the topic of making Ashurst one of the most competitive and profitable firms in the City, however, the two are deadly serious.
The numbers speak for themselves. This year, Ashurst muscled its way into the top 10 UK law firms ranked by gross revenue (The Lawyer UK 200 Annual Report 2007) by posting a 28.5 per cent increase in turnover to £275m and an incredible 36 per cent jump in average profit per equity partner (PEP) to £956,000.
This was one of the biggest improvements in the City in 2006-07 and puts Ashurst close to the magic circle in terms of remuneration of its equity partners.
"We got our practices lined up, we've made some good laterals and frankly, the year has shown itself in top-line growth," effuses Bromwich.
This is a very different story from 2004, when Bromwich and Green first worked together at Ashurst's helm.
The firm had just suffered the public breakdown of its merger talks with US firm Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, following similarly unsuccessful talks with Latham & Watkins and Clifford Chance in the preceding five years.
Morale - and profits - were low, previous managing partner Justin Spendlove jumped ship to join Fried Frank, and Bromwich was elected on a ticket of tightening the purse-strings.
In the past three years, Green and Bromwich have presided over a turnover growth of 40 per cent and a truly impressive 62 per cent increase in PEP.
"It's hard to pinpoint growth in one area. We've experienced growth everywhere, including overseas," considers Green. "Without any great science to it, we think a 35 per cent contribution from offices outside London is about right given the size of the firm. It's now about 29 to 30 per cent, which we've grown effectively from nothing."
The growth is even more impressive considering Ashurst was late into the European market. While other UK firms picked merger candidates, all Ashurst had was a representative office in Paris, leaving the firm with little choice but to grow organically.
Building up the network remains a priority for Green and Bromwich. At the end of 2006, Green went on record about the firm's ambitious plans for five key jurisdictions over three years: China, Dubai, Japan, Singapore and India.
Ashurst already has presences in all but China, albeit with just 12 partners across the jurisdictions. India is necessarily a representative office and despite some legal hiccups in 1995, Ashurst remains Europe's only law firm with a licence in the country.
"We have excellent relationships with the best firms and we have brand recognition," claims Green. "We have a commitment to India that has lasted over 10 years and we think that's appreciated in India."
The duo believe Singapore and Dubai will both prove useful springboards into India, although Dubai in particular also has its own attractions.
Surprisingly, Ashurst has never opened in Hong Kong. "We approached it in the 1980s but decided it would be too expensive compared with what we would gain," Green explains.
Which leaves China. Ashurst is very much still in the "reviewing" stage and is prepared to make it a long-term effort. Bromwich and Green are determined to grow there organically.
"Our history of alliances isn't great. We're more comfortable with doing it ourselves," says Green. "But we need to ensure that our partners everywhere have an international focus."
That said, one alliance that did work was with Sweden's AJB Bergh, which this year integrated with Ashurst.
"Sweden was perhaps a special case because Jonas Bergh [the Swedish managing partner] and the rest of AJB were very internationally focused," explains Green. "So it was more than a useful bolt-on, where much of the risk is very domestically based."
One jurisdiction that is conspicuously absent from Ashurst's plans for world domination is the US - although this is little wonder, with the painful memory of failed merger talks still fresh.
The dominance of London as a capital market has mitigated circumstances, however. "London has become more of a centre anyway," says Bromwich. "We've resolved the necessity of having some US capability and we have some now out of London, principally with the equity capital markets practice."
Both Bromwich and Green are popular within the firm: Bromwich is six months into his second term, while Green's second five-year term comes to a close at the end of 2008.
While the two can wax lyrical about financial growth, they are visibly uneasy talking about themselves as leaders, muttering something about avoiding the cult of personality. "Honestly, we don't compete," Green ventures. "And you find that some do at other firms, in my experience. We're complementary."
With an ambitious international strategy over three years, that is just as well, perhaps.
No of fee-earners: 853
Name: Simon Bromwich
Title: Managing partner
1988: Hull University, LLB
1989-91: Trainee, Ashurst
2004-present: Managing partner
Name: Geoffrey Green
Title: Senior partner
Education: 1972: St Catharine's College, Cambridge, MA
1973-75: Trainee, Ashurst
1994-98: Head of corporate
1998-present: Senior partner