Fitting the Bill

When even the railway system can’t make a man angry, he has to be the nicest lawyer around. Fiona Callister meets Martineau Johnson’s very agreeable senior partner elect

Goodness me, William Barker is nice. The new senior partner elect of Martineau Johnson could be forgiven for being fairly crotchety as the wonders of the British railway network have combined to make the journey down to his firm’s newish London office, as he puts it, “rubbish”. But instead, he scurries around trying to find a glass to put my requested orange juice in. Neither of us spots the rows of glasses on another table, so the intellectual property heavyweight, after much reassurance that it really doesn’t matter, has to use a cup instead. So the orange juice arrives with a saucer.

Barker’s niceness is not surprising as Birmingham-based Martineau Johnson seems to be a genuinely nice firm. So nice, in fact, that it was not until 1999 that the firm lost its first equity partner since Martineau Johnson started in the early 19th century. The departure of property partner Joanna Lawson-King must have been as great a shock as a messy divorce in The Waltons. She was followed by Barry Sankey who was formerly the head of the property development group but left following a disagreement – the equivalent, it would seem, of Ma Walton carrying out satanic sacrifices.

Anyway, enough of the digressions. Barker stresses that Martineau Johnson is still the same lovely place as it ever was. “We are seeing profits going up, profits per partner going up, and turnover going up, while retaining the special culture that we have,” he beams. “There is no in-fighting among the partnership at Martineau Johnson.”

But surely every firm would claim that? “They might claim it, but it wouldn’t be true,” laughs Barker, adding later: “Martineau Johnson partners don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s a firm that people will want to come and join after starting off life in other law firms.”

That view is backed up by one of Barker’s competitors in the intellectual property (IP) market, Wragge & Co’s Gordon Harris, who says that he has consistently heard the same about Martineau Johnson. “I have worked with many Martineau partners over the years and they have all been easy to deal with,” he says, adding that he views Barker as his most formidable competitor within the Birmingham IP market.

Barker was voted in by the partnership two weeks ago. He takes over from the current senior partner Michael Shepherd, who is retiring from the position at the beginning of May.

Barker has been on the executive board of the firm for the past six years, joining it as a relatively new partner at the age of 33. He says that since becoming a partner he has become more interested in how a law firm runs itself and so becoming senior partner seemed logical. “I am involved in the development of our foreign practice. And it was while I was on a trip doing that, that it struck me that I was always being an ambassador for the firm, which is how we see our senior partners.

“Ever since I became an equity partner, I have been interested in the way the law firm business has been run. When you become a partner you become a part of the business and that carries with it certain responsibilities.”

At 39, Barker is the firm’s youngest ever senior partner and feels that this reflects the young partnership within Martineau Johnson. He has yet to decide exactly how taking on the role will affect his practice. “Having decided to run for the election, I didn’t think in any great detail about what changes to my day-to-day routine would be needed until after the election. Something will have to give but I don’t want to give up fee-earning in its entirety.”

Fortunately, the position of senior partner is not full time, unlike the managing partner post held by David Gwyther.

Barker joined Martineau Johnson in 1991 from Pinsent Curtis, tempted by the opportunity of heading his own IP department. While at Pinsents he worked with Neil Maybury, now a consultant at Putsmans in Birmingham, who again reiterates that Barker is a nice bloke.

“Bill was my number one assistant in the IP group,” remembers Maybury. “He was a smashing colleague and beneath that rather quiet exterior lies a very capable chap.”

Barker has left Pinsents behind and he does not see Martineau Johnson following his former firm’s recent example of merging, in this instance with City firm Biddle. “Over the past few years we have had a number of approaches for mergers from various firms, including some well known firms. But the partners have constantly turned the approaches down and are confident of Martineau Johnson’s future as an independent law firm.”

The Pinsents and Biddle merger was primarily aimed at strengthening Pinsents’ London office and Barker does not believe that the merger will affect the Birmingham market. And Barker says Martineau Johnson’s own London office is going from strength to strength – but then he would say that, wouldn’t he.

The office opened last September when the firm tempted over Heather Leeson, a banking litigation and recovery partner from a newly-merged Hammond Suddards Edge. In November, the firm also brought in Leeson’s former colleague Hugh Edmunds. The practice is operating out of serviced offices, although Barker says that they are looking for their own premises.

Others are lined up to join the office. But Barker stresses that his firm is not looking to “take on the world” from the London office, it is just to help tempt in international clients.

“The trouble with being based in Birmingham is that when you say that to lawyers they ask, ‘Are you from Alabama?'” explains Barker. “When you say that it’s in England they ask, ‘which part of London is it?’ There’s a perception that everything that happens in England happens in London. You can eventually persuade the lawyers to use you but it’s difficult persuading the clients who tend to ask whether the lawyer knows anyone in London.”

If only lawyers were picked on the basis of their niceness, then Martineau Johnson would have jetloads of clients flying over to Birmingham every week, London office or no London office.
William Barker
Senior partner elect
Martineau Johnson