Their names might not be familiar yet, but be prepared to see a lot more of them. A new generation of corporate lawyers is emerging at Slaughter and May to replace the likes of Nigel Boardman, Chris Saul and William Underhill.
Slaughters veterans have reputations so huge the firm named its practice groups after them. Boardman’s group is known by his initials, NPB, Stephen Cooke’s is SJC, and so on, with Underhill’s technology, media and telecoms (TMT) department the sole exception.
But Slaughters cannot maintain its position as the City’s most prestigious firm, or hang on to its treasured blue-chip clients, unless its young partners deliver.
Slaughters has been at the top of the legal market for generations, and yet it is unheard of for the firm to make a lateral hire.
Uniquely, it relies entirely on internal promotions to bolster its ranks. Under this system senior partners hand down clients to junior colleagues as if they were family heirlooms. Ambitious juniors work with more experienced colleagues on an account in the knowledge that one day, if they are good enough, the crown jewels will be theirs.
“Someone like Nigel [Boardman] has got so many clients there’s no way he can service that client base on his own,” says one Slaughters partner. “Those clients tend to get handed down.”
Many of these relationships go back decades, so the key to rising through the ranks is getting to know the likes of Morgan Stanley and BHP Billiton.
Among the younger generation of Slaughters’ corporate partners is Roland Turnill, who has fostered close links with Shell and Spanish bank Santander since being made up in 2004. His colleagues at the firm tell of rave reviews from clients. Even in the rarefied atmosphere of Slaughters, Turnill stands out.
One partner describes him as “a top-class, all-round lawyer”. Another says: “He has that classic combination of intelligence and judgement, and an ability to understand the other side.”
Turnill has recently been instructed by Santander on its role in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS)-led consortium that bought ABN Amro for £49.2bn. The Spanish bank negotiated probably the best deal of the three buyers, it has now emerged, by picking up the lucrative South American operations of ABN. Meanwhile, Fortis and RBS have both seen writedowns on their investments.
Turnill, a budding cricketer who was one of the top scorers in the recent Slaughters partners v associates match, has also been kept busy by disposals relating to chemical group AkzoNobel’s £8bn acquisition of chemical giant ICI last year.
Another partner on the rise is Simon Nicholls, who was made up a year after Turnill. Already a “respected figure in the public M&A mould”, according to one colleague, he has been a regular feature on Slaughters’ deals over the past 12 months.
These included the £2.2bn merger of market research giants Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) and Germany’s GfK (which went belly-up last week after GfK failed to raise enough finance) and GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) sale of four pharmaceutical products to Aspen Global for £170m.
Nicholls is in Cooke’s group and lists GSK as one of his key clients. He also has close links with Whitbread, which has been buying up hotel space ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, and has worked on capital markets transactions for JPMorgan Cazenove.
“We don’t just regard ourselves as M&A lawyers,” he says. “There are very few people here who wouldn’t expect to be doing a broad range of work.”
Outside the law, Nicholls enjoys music and plays piano and guitar – the product, he says, of a misspent youth in rock bands.
Jeff Twentyman is at a later stage of his career, having been made up in 1998, but deserves a mention in this list because of his work in private equity. He leads the relationship with Terra Firma, one of Slaughters’ most prolific private equity clients.
The firm had lagged behind the magic circle when it came to tapping into the private equity boom of the past few years. In April 2007 the then senior partner Tim Clark admitted: “We were slow off the mark, it has to be said, and we tended to be sellers rather than buyers.”
Twentyman has advised Terra Firma as a seller recently, helping the company offload its waste disposal business.
Whether the firm can revamp its private equity practice in time for the next M&A boom depends in large part on the efforts of Twentyman.
The practice will receive a further boost when partner Tim Pharoah returns from secondment at Morgan Stanley’s private equity arm in September.
Slaughters has been quick to see the benefits of sending its young lawyers out to work for clients.
Nicholls, who spent a year at Morgan Stanley in the investment banking business, says: “It’s relationship building, but it’s also interesting work. It’s helpful to see things from the other side.”
Another interesting placement was that of David Watkins, who this year returned to the firm after two years as a secretary on the Takeover Panel.
The appointment has been hailed as a triumph within the firm, which can now call on his technical expertise for a wide range of M&A transactions.
“That’s been a great success,” says one partner. “If there’s a knotted point on a takeover, we’ve got a guy who spent two years at the highest level of the Takeover Panel.”
In the years to come Slaughters will see its primacy challenged from all quarters. But unlike its international rivals, it lacks the ability to expand into emerging markets and London looks set to be a challenging place to run a corporate practice for the foreseeable future.
Despite ;this, ;no ;one ;at Slaughters ;appears ;unduly worried – least of all the next generation of lawyers, who see their adaptability as key to the firm’s continued success.