Golden years?

As long-serving boss calls it a day at soaraway Clydes, does stability equal success?

Nigel Knowles
Nigel Knowles

News that Clyde & Co senior partner Michael Payton had decided to stand down next year signalled the end of an era. Payton has been at the helm of the firm as senior partner for 28 years – since 1984. To put that in perspective, the year Payton became senior partner was the year of the Brighton hotel bombing, the year the government replaced GCE O-levels and CSEs with GCSEs and the year Indian prime minister Indira Ghandi was assassinated.

To put it another way, Payton has been in charge of the firm for longer than Sir Alex Ferguson has been in the hot seat at Manchester United. And, like Ferguson, Payton has enjoyed a fair few successes along the way, with Clydes growing from a 16-partner, £6m firm to a £287m, 285-partner firm during his tenure.

Payton is probably unmatched in the industry in terms of his longevity in management, but there are a handful of law firm managers whose force of personality and staying power have made them just as big a part of their firm’s character. Take Sir Nigel Knowles for example. He has been managing partner of what is now DLA Piper since 1996 – the year chess world champion Garry Kasparov beat computer Deep Blue after losing to it in the first game.

He may have a few years to go before he can rival Payton’s tenure, but Knowles has already surpassed the man in terms of transforming his firm. Financial details for Dibb Lupton Broomhead – as DLA Piper was then – when Knowles took over are thin on the ground, but it’s safe to say that it was not one of the largest firms in the world with revenue of £1.4bn when he took the helm.

Berwin Leighton Paisner managing partner Neville Eisenberg is another longstanding leader whose time in charge of his firm has been marked by sustained growth.

Eisenberg was first elected managing partner in 1999, aged 37. He rose to power in a contested election, but has not been challenged since, such is the partnership’s confidence in


And it is not only UK firms that have managers who have been around long enough to become institutions in their own right. K&L Gates chairman Peter Kalis has been in charge since 1997 – the year scientists cloned Dolly the sheep, don’t you know – and signed up for another four-year term in October. Kalis has guided his firm through eight mergers, turning it into a $1.06bn mid-market colossus.

But Kalis is not the elder statesman of US law firms. Ralph Baxter, who has been chairman and chief executive of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe since 1990, takes that accolade. Baxter’s tenure may not sound like such a long time, but if you watch a Harry Potter film or Twilight, 1990 is around when most of the cast were born. Like Kalis, Baxter’s term has been categorised by growth: what once was a sleepy San Francisco firm known mainly for municipal bond work is now a giant of the legal world.

Indeed, all the lawyers mentioned above have their firms’ growth in common. Perhaps consistency at the top is the key to success in the legal world. Then again, there is probably a reason you don’t hear about long-serving partners at poorly performing firms.