Culling them softly

Eversheds’ David Ansbro has found that he has to balance compassion with sound business acumen in his still fresh role as managing partner.

According to Eversheds’ website, its lawyers have a reputation for being unstuffy, down-to-earth, accessible people. So if a firm’s figurehead is chosen to reflect its character, David Ansbro, Eversheds’ managing partner, is perfect.

Many men put in his position would have avoided an interview. Eversheds has announced recently that it is closing its Bristol office, cutting 10 per cent of its equity partnership, and it has already closed the Middlesbrough office.

But Ansbro is willing to talk, and what’s more, he is talking without the emotional prop of the marketing department. Which means that if this dastardly reporter bowls him a googly, he will have to protect the wicket all on his own. It is doubtful whether the question of bringing in support ever crossed Ansbro’s mind.

Not that Ansbro is naive about the media; he can talk the talk as well as anyone. But stylewise he is more pre-election Tony Blair (“I know how bad it is, but I’ll do my very best for everyone”) than Peter Mandelson (“This is actually really good, you just don’t understand”).

Ansbro has been in the job of national managing partner only since last summer, when he moved from the position of managing partner for the Leeds and Manchester offices, but since then Eversheds has begun to cope with the process of becoming a fully national firm with full profit-sharing.

This process has meant that every expenditure is up for reconsideration. When Eversheds consisted of seven businesses brought together by a name, it was presumably easier to accept a less profitable area in return for greater geographical coverage.

Ansbro denies that the move into a national profit centre has increased the pressure for profitability, but admits that the new financial arrangements have caused their own difficulties.

“When you bring the business together, there’s an expectation in any merger that it will produce some savings in cost terms. But my experience is that in the short term, costs increase,” he says. “With the Middlesbrough and Bristol offices, we’re making changes when the business is strong; this is not a kneejerk reaction for profitability.”

While the decision to close in Teesside might not surprise, the closure of the Bristol office at a time when the South West business centre is booming might seem a little odd for a national firm. Ansbro, though, insists that the firm’s Bristol-based clients believe that closing the office and bringing the staff into the Cardiff office, which is around eight times the size with 500 staff, is a sensible move.

However, as Ansbro repeats several times, the thing about the closures is that they affect people individually and “hurt” them. Making those decisions, he says, has been the most difficult part of his new position to date.

That statement coming from many people could just be insincere PR spin, but Ansbro does genuinely seem to care, implied by the slightly jarring use of the word “hurt”. When talking about the partners who will have to leave equity, Ansbro says that the firm has been talking to a number of them for a while. “We do that quietly and humanely,” he says. In print this might sound like a description of getting rid of a favourite old dog, but when uttered by Ansbro it does suggest great regret.

While the merger has had its negative aspects, Ansbro believes that previously perceived barriers between the various offices have now disappeared and that decisions have become much easier to make. Not that decision-making, says Ansbro, is ever easy within a law firm.

“There are 3,500 people in this firm, and sometimes I thank God that only half of them are lawyers. One of the things about working with lawyers in this organisation is that, if you think you have a good idea, they take it apart.”

He is very keen to acknowledge the Eversheds “stagehands” by mentioning the support staff in the same breath as the lawyers and drawing particular attention to the charming, yet not stuffy, receptionists at Senator House.

Ansbro believes that it is very important to be seen as available and ready to listen to staff of any level within the firm. While he confesses that he does not know the names of all the 100 trainees that Eversheds took on in September, Ansbro does let it be known that he has to rearrange a celebratory lunch with a woman who qualified on 24 January.

Perhaps Ansbro’s “man-of-the-people” attitude is a hangover from his numerous years working in the public sector.

He started his career at Leeds City Council, where he qualified as a lawyer, then spent the next two decades working his way up the Yorkshire power ladder to the position of chief executive of the council where he had started, a position that he left in 1991 for Eversheds.

He is reluctant to talk about that time, though, dismissing it with a protestation that it was all a long time ago. That may well be the case, but to many in Leeds the label still sticks and critics still carp that he has no business running a law firm.

So does he miss anything about working in local authority? “Never look back, never miss anything,” chirps Ansbro. “I’ve always enjoyed everything I’ve done and never regretted anything. You just look forward to the next challenge.”

One of the next challenges for Ansbro is to work on Eversheds’ international presence. The firm has offices in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Monaco and Sofia. Ansbro is optimistic that the much-awaited move into Germany will come within a year, after the firm missed out on Norton Rose‘s new partner Gaedertz.

The current plan is to persuade a German firm to come under the Eversheds umbrella rather than set up its own office and cherry pick.

Ansbro believes that the structure of the German business market, with its multiple centres, will help Eversheds find a firm to merge with, in that it will better comprehend the advantages of having a national network.

This is an aspect, Ansbro claims, that is seen by many US firms as Eversheds’ unique selling point, and he expects to attract more work from across the Atlantic. There are, however, no plans to open an office in the US, which is a shame, as Ansbro’s perky can-do optimism would fit right into their “have-a-nice-day” culture.
David Ansbro
Managing partner