Richard Gerstein

Finers Stephens Innocent managing partner Richard Gerstein has given up the helm to go back to fee earning. Clair Smith talks to the litigation lawyer who will not miss the burden of management

Being a managing partner does not always come with all the perks that people might expect.

“I always thought that managing partners spent most of the time on the golf course. But I think I have cancelled nearly every game of golf I’ve planned in the last two and a half years,” says Finers Stephens Innocent front man Richard Gerstein.

Hence his decision to hand over the reins of the West End property firm to head of corporate and commercial Anthony Barling (The Lawyer, 24 April).

“Whether or not my golf will improve I don’t know, but I might remember who my children are,” he says.

Gerstein has had a busy two-and-a-half years at the helm of Finers, the firm he co-founded in 1988. Within three months of taking over, he had led the firm in completing its first merger with West End commercial and private client outfit Bennett Taylor Tyrell.

And the last six months of his control have seen yet another merger, this time with niche City media firm Stephens Innocent, and the arrival of five partners from the defunct Edward Lewis.

Gerstein says: “I think the firm has grown by about 50 per cent in the time I have been managing. Turnover has increased substantially, profits have increased substantially, and the whole atmosphere of the firm has changed.

“It is a much happier ship than it used to be. I took what was quite an understated practice and decided that wasn’t good enough. We had to be recognised, had to establish ourselves in the marketplace.”

Gerstein is handing over the post six months before the end of his term after calling in management consultants Hildebrandt to restructure the firm in preparation for further expansion. The firm is now splitting its management board from its strategy board.

Gerstein says: “We were managing a big firm in the same way we used to manage a small firm. It made sense, having agreed on the new structure, to put it in place and now was the obvious time to hand over to Anthony.”

But Gerstein adds that the time had come for him to move on to the next challenge.

Mark Stephens, head of international at Finers Stephens, says: “He has hankered to go back to legal practice, and I think he has seen how much I have enjoyed being relieved of the burdens of management.”

Other sources say that Gerstein is a top-class litigator and, after being pulled in to work on a couple of major pieces of litigation in the last few months, he has decided that is where his heart really lies.

One lawyer says: “I think there comes a time when you have to make a choice – either you are going to become a long-term manager or you are a solicitor. He has decided where he wants to be.”

Gerstein says: “Managing partner is not a job for life, and I am too young to be senior partner. I think I can give more to the firm by going back to serving my clients.” His shelves are already lined with bulging files which were not there a couple of weeks ago, proving just how anxious he is to get back to the coalface.

One of his biggest clients is the Radisson hotel group, which he advises on European property work. The hotel practice is one which he plans to build up.

Gerstein says that re-establishing a client base will be as big a challenge as managing a rapidly expanding law firm.

“I think to rebuild a practice is quite a challenge, but I wouldn’t have taken it on if I didn’t think I could do it.

“I don’t think you have any less free time as a managing partner than you do as a full-time fee earner, you just think about different things. There is no time that you are not thinking about the firm – what you are about is your business.”

But now Gerstein will have to concentrate on winning clients. Before taking the reins he was head of litigation for almost a decade, and was known as a big fee generator.

“I will have to get out and about and remind people who I am. All my attempts to lose weight will go out the window because I will have to do so many lunches. I will have to go the gym more,” he says.

But when he took over as managing partner, he vowed he would go to the gym three times a week. “It ended up more like once every three weeks,” he says.

After nearly 13 years as a manager, having to take orders instead of giving them might come as a shock. He says: “I won’t go back to litigation as head of department. It wouldn’t be fair to push people out of jobs because of decisions I have made. I will play whatever role I am asked to play. It will be quite weird, but then it’s only another challenge.”

Another tug on the heart strings will come when Finers Stephens makes its next big strategic move, which at the rate the firm is expanding will probably not be far away. “The first time a major development takes place and I’m not at the forefront will feel strange, but then it felt strange when the first major piece of litigation came in and I was managing partner,” Gerstein says.

As for what might be the next development, Gerstein will not rule anything out.

“If Clifford Chance came along and said that it would like to change its name to Finers Clifford Chance we might consider it,” he says.

But such offers are no longer his concern. Gerstein will spend the next three months booking a summer holiday to California, attending a wedding in Las Vegas, finishing his extension and spending some time with the children.

“There might be a few more weekends vegetating like the last one,” he says. “But I spent most of that getting blamed for the internet not working by my teenage children.”
Richard Gerstein
Managing partner
Finers Stephens Innocent