David Ansbro – High flyer with his feet on the ground

Chris Fogarty talks to David Ansbro, Eversheds' 'Mr Nice Guy' who heads up the Leeds and Manchester offices. Coronation Street has never seen a party quite like it.

A month ago, on the cobbled stones of the most famous soap opera street in the world, regulars Ken Barlow and Rita Fairclough mingled with 1,000 Eversheds lawyers, their friends and partners.

The party brought together Eversheds' Leeds and Manchester offices and was hosted by the offices' managing partner David Ansbro. The party, it seems, was simply an excuse for a party.

As legendary street busybody Hilda Ogden would have pointed out, "there's nowt queer as lawyers" – and there is probably no one in the legal profession quite like Ansbro.

He has spent most of his working life in the public sector but is now running one of northern England's most successful private law firms.

He works in a region so competitive that it is known as the shark pool – because legal minnows either bite or get eaten up. But conversely, he insists he does not like treading on his competitors toes.

And Ansbro is a managing partner who maintains that the people in his post room are just as important as big billing partners, and should be treated in the same manner.

Eversheds partner Stephen Cirell says his boss "walks the floors" of Eversheds, never forgetting a name or what they do. "No matter what level you're at, he makes you feel valued for what you do," says Cirell.

Ansbro began his legal training at Leeds City Council, qualifying in 1969. He progressed through Yorkshire local government circles, becoming the youngest town clerk in Britain when he took over at York in 1981.

He briefly stepped outside local government in the late 1980s, spending time in a Huddersfield private practice before joining Leeds City Council again in 1988 – this time as its chief executive.

Ansbro was part of a team that forged one of the original private/public partnerships between council and business that are so popular today.

"There was always an uneasy approach between [Leeds] city council and commerce and industry," recalls Ansbro. "It was important that business institutions in the widest sense and the community in the widest sense, got together to act in the interests of the city."

Perhaps the most objective view of Ansbro's success in helping to achieve this is a glowing magazine article that appeared last month. The Economist praised Leeds' economic turnaround and, unusually for the right-wing business publication, it attributed part of the credit to the council.

Ansbro stresses he was part of a team and points out that unemployment is still rife in parts of Leeds. If he is proud of the achievements that his efforts sparked in Leeds then he hides it well.

After all, this is the man who admits he has always been "fascinated" with how a city runs. Who else would go to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia – one of the most remote and intriguing capitals of the world – and come back saying that the power plant was built at the wrong end of the city.

"Local government is very undervalued," says Ansbro, "but I had a wonderful time and great training."

In 1991 Ansbro was in his mid-forties and an early retirement from the council was looming. He did not want to retire and had the urge to do something different.

Ansbro joined what was then Hepworth & Chadwick, working in the public sector department, before becoming managing partner of what became Eversheds just three years later. It was an unusually swift rise through the ranks but his managerial capabilities were quickly realised by fellow partners.

Since 1995 he has managed a rapidly growing Manchester office and gained up to 20 per cent of fee income from practice areas that hardly existed in the firm when he took over.

What is most remarkable is that he has done this with a management style that makes Bambi look ruthless. The son of a Manchester telephone engineer, Ansbro has always made good communication a priority in his career.

"It's a little thing, but it is very noticeable that everyone is on Christian name terms," he says of Eversheds. "You don't find that in other firms."

He says the firm is not "too stuffy", with the distinctly Yorkshire pronunciation of "stuffy" offering the only hint of a northern accent.

This plain-speaking attitude is extended to clients and Ansbro believes this helped his firm capture work. The Leeds office acted on Du Pont's £1.8bn acquisition of ICI's specialist chemical business in 1997 – one of 53 M&A transactions which has helped the firms' aggregate value in deals soar by 600 per cent.

"We expect people to be frank with us and we encourage, and it's worked very well," says Ansbro.

As for his own attitude to staff, Ansbro remarks: "There's no point going to work unless you can have a bit of fun. You've got to get up in the morning and want to go to work. Anyone who wakes up and thinks 'what am I doing' – you've got a problem."

Ansbro's words risk looking a touch sanctimonious on paper. In person they are not delivered in a preacher's style but instead rather gradually extracted.

Of course the "we care about our workers" stance could be all public relations flannel – part of Eversheds' often overly-aggressive media marketing. But Ansbro's straightforward style matches his egalitarian words.

On his wrist is not the obligatory expensive lawyer's timepiece, but a battered watch that looks as if it has been with him since childhood.

And he takes no credit for the firm's happy family culture, saying he has just built on what was already there.

One Leeds senior partner savagely parodies Ansbro's Mr Nice Guy style, but in the same breath admits his firm is their most feared competitor.

"Some people would say that some of our competitors have a slightly different style to us. There seems to be some evidence of that," is as much as Ansbro will say about the opposition.

But, for all his soft words, he is not a man to be taken lightly.

Ansbro retires in three years but despite his attitude that his staff should "work hard and play hard", Ansbro is definitely more of a worker and is non-committal regarding his retirement plans.

He says talking of "major goals" before his Eversheds reign (or is that democracy?) comes to an end is too "grand", but he clearly has achievement on his mind.

"In Leeds and Manchester we're in the premier division. There may be 20 teams playing but there's only six who matter," says Ansbro.

"Those six have the best people, the best players, they're trained harder, they have better facilities and they're better rewarded – but they also have life outside what they're doing. And what we want to be is the Manchester United of the legal profession."

For a man who has been religiously supporting Manchester City since 1948, that cannot be an easy analogy to make.