Fiona Callister finds that the deal maker of the year, Linklaters senior corporate partner David Cheyne, may walk with a swagger, but his honesty and rebellious streak mark him out from the rest.
At the beginning of the year, Linklaters senior corporate partner David Cheyne topped the Financial News league of deal makers for the second year running.
He played a leading role in European merger and acquisition deals worth a staggering £134bn, including the Vodafone Mannesmann deal.
“Coming top of the table again didn’t come as a surprise as I knew the size of the transactions that we were working on,” says Cheyne. “With those sort of tables, while it is jolly nice to be on them, one does tend to view them with a certain amount of scepticism.
“The size of one deal can propel you from being tenth to being first not withstanding the fact that you have done some huge transactions.
“But of course I read them, everyone does. But as one friend of mine, who is not a lawyer, says, ‘once you are at the top there is only one way to go’. But anyone who says they don’t read them is lying.”
When I mention the tables, Cheyne smiles as if he has been waiting for this question and relaxes back into his chair to give me his considered answer.
Not for him the mock modesty of ‘it’s not just me, it’s my team’ approach – Cheyne is happy to accept the compliments.
Saying that Cheyne is arrogant is perhaps unfair, but he certainly has a swagger about him.
An ill thought-out question is met with a slight look of disdain and a raised eyebrow.
But in contrast to the swarms of lawyers who act as if they have the name of their firms tattooed on their collective backsides, Cheyne is refreshing.
Such is his stature within Linklaters that the minder sent from marketing to protect him (whether from himself or the beguiling ways of the legal hack is not clear) does not even flinch when Cheyne briefly strays off the party line.
You do not expect to hear such a senior lawyer seriously debating with the press the merits of moving firms, for example.
“I could see circumstances where I would find [a move in-house] interesting,” he admits. “I suspect that in the UK environment there are a number of companies where the senior lawyer is more akin to a US general counsel.
“Many more companies have an idea of the value of a legal department. With my seniority I am likely to be interested in that sort of role, doing a slightly broader role than just doing deals.”
While he says he has been tempted by a move to other firms, Cheyne says that he likes Linklaters and, as he points out, he is still there. In fact, he has spent his entire career at the firm, including a five-year stint at its Hong Kong office.
Cheyne returned to London because he was concerned about being out of the market for too long.
“I was worried about adjusting to being back in London although it took me about two weeks to adjust professionally. Culturally it took a lot longer.”
The main difference between working in the two markets, he says, was that in Hong Kong you were at the client’s beck and call much more.
“Business and social are much more intertwined there. Although when I came back to London times had changed and your free time was disturbed more.”
During the Vodafone deal, Cheyne’s Sunday afternoons were always taken up by lengthy conference calls.
“You have to learn to compartmentalise otherwise you go mad,” he says. “If I am having a conference call at home then I won’t think about the office apart from when I am on the call. Just as I don’t tend to think about things outside work when I am at work.”
His attempts to keep his social life distinct from his professional may explain the lack of people willing to comment on what he is like as a person.
Many of the people who have worked on the opposing side to him were out of the country, as you would expect corporate lawyers of the same calibre to be, but others seemed strangely reluctant to cast judgement.
Two top lawyers flatly refused to tell The Lawyer anything, another went away to prepare a statement on him. Benjamin Stapleton, from Sullivan & Cromwell in New York, who has worked alongside Cheyne several times in the past, only felt able to comment on his undoubted legal skills.
“He is everything you could want from a lawyer, he’s cool, calm and collected,” says Stapleton.
On average, Cheyne estimates he works around 60 hours a week.
“I don’t find it easy to shut the door [on the office] in the sense that I only leave people to do their particular bit. I don’t think I’m very usefully employed doing the verification. So I don’t stay around while other people are doing things.
“While you have a desire to be personally involved in every step, it’s something that you to have to control.”
What he and his family find difficult is not so much the amount of hours as the unpredictability of them.
“I never know when I am going to get home,” he says. “My family don’t terribly like it and the law is not something that I would encourage them to do. If they were interested then I would, but there are lots of other things to do. Some of which are more remunerative than others.”
When it comes to money, Cheyne is no bleeding heart socialist. His pay packet is justified, he argues, because of the hours and commitment he puts in. From comments throughout the interview, material considerations seem to be one of his main motivational factors for doing the job.
Career wise nothing outside the law interests him, he says, adding that if he knew of a way to make the sort of billions that Bill Gates has then he would have done it by now.
If he had more money he would collect more art – he recently bought a work he “couldn’t really afford” by modernist painter Raoul Dufy with the money left over from an overestimation of pension contributions.
Cheyne also collects antique furniture, mostly pre-1830s, although he has run out of room for any more at the moment. He has also inherited a love of Meissen monkeys from his father and is working his way towards owning the entire band.
“There are 21 of them in the band and they still make them. I have some 19th century ones but I can never find any earlier. I found one a few years ago but I was outbid for it,” he says.
One suspects that Cheyne’s individuality has played a large part in his success, although it might have made him difficult to manage over the years.
Cheyne admits that he was “tiresome” at school and far from an ideal pupil.
“I am not naturally inclined to do what I am told,” he confesses. “I react badly if I am told to do something, but I react well if I am asked.
“I like working well with others in the sense that I am very responsive to other ideas but as to following the crowd, I don’t do that at all and I don’t necessarily agree to do what others decide.”
That said, Cheyne has no patience with those lamenting the death of the true partnership where every decision involves every partner.
“The market has changed and we have changed as a firm. To some extent we need to change further and we need to operate as a team in the sense that we are a legal business and we have to accept that fact. We have to accept that we are much more managed than we were.”
Asked whether he prefers to work on hostile bids or friendly takeovers, Cheyne’s face lights up at the former.
This is obviously a man who likes a legal fight. “Hostile bids are quite entertaining,” he enthuses. “Clearly it is generally easier to do a friendly transaction than a hostile one for the simple reason that cooperation is better than warfare.
“[Hostile bids] do generate a greater amount of heat. One thing that is interesting about hostiles is that people have to keep their sense of humour. You do get a considerable amount of good humour and people make sure they do laugh occasionally so meetings are more than just working out what you do next.”
Cheyne says that the Vodafone deal was not particularly bloody.
“The Vodafone deal was well mannered on both sides. Some UK takeovers get quite vitriolic, but that was a very measured campaign.”
Given the hours that Cheyne puts in during these kinds of deals and his obvious love of sweets, it is a wonder that his teeth have survived. Again not a trait you would expect from a high-flying corporate lawyer.
He almost chain-consumes mints from a small bowl in the middle of the table, crunching them quickly before moving on to the next. Nervous energy obviously burns off the calories as Cheyne seems to have avoided the typical lawyer midriff spread.
But then if Cheyne is anything, he is not an average lawyer.