’s soon-to-be former chief executive Jonathan Goldstein is in rare contemplative mood when The Lawyer meets him.
It is seven days since The Lawyer broke the news that Goldstein is to quit in April (5 February). Last month, after considerable soul-searching, Olswang’s 40-year-old chief executive decided to tell his friend, partner and senior management colleague Mark Devereux, that he had accepted an opportunity offered to him by Gerald Ronson, head of property business Heron International.
Goldstein is to join the business as joint managing director with former Heron director of acquisition and development Peter Ferrari, a decision that came as a major surprise to the legal market, the property market and his partners at Olswang.
“The notion of [law firm] size is spiralling out of control and is unhealthy,” says a typically energised Goldstein.
He continues: “There’s no logic in the argument that you get better quality because a firm’s got 2,000 lawyers as opposed to 200 lawyers. The enjoyment aspects are being taken out of the profession because of the drive towards becoming more and more a commodity business and taking away from the business aspects.
“It’s not healthy. It’s a very disappointing trend and I think it will ultimately detract from people joining the profession.”
This is not what you expect from the man who oversaw his firm mushroom spectacularly from around 60 lawyers in the mid-1990s to its current 400. Ironically, considering Goldstein’s rant about size, one of his proudest achievements is the DJ Freeman deal in 2003 that helped pave the way for Olswang’s significant growth.
“For us, 2001-02 had been a difficult year, with a surprising drop in profitabilty [to £257,000],” he says. “It had knocked the confidence of the partnership. But in fact, initially the Reading transaction [when Olswang took over Garretts] instilled the belief that we were still able to do things and maintain a level of excitement and energy. That led to the Freeman situation.”
Inevitably his impending exit has sparked an immediate guessing game as to who is next in line to fill Goldstein’s considerable shoes. Not that there was anything resembling succession planning going on.
As Goldstein puts it: “You don’t succession plan for a guy who’s 40 years’ old. Why would you? It wasn’t on my agenda two months ago.”
Goldstein has been involved in senior management at Olswang since 1997, when he was appointed as executive partner to work with firm founder Simon Olswang.
The following year Goldstein, then 32, took over as chief executive to begin the first of his three three-year terms. It is not easy to get him to reminisce, however.
“I’m not a great believer in looking back – never have been and never will be. I’m much more focused on what happens next,” he says.
As will his partners at Olswang. The early favourite is litigation head and international strategy partner David Stewart, although sources close to the firm suggest his hard-nosed style divides opinion.
Property head Tim Westhead is seen as a ‘charismatic’ candidate who would provide a break from the firm’s traditional media base. Media darling David Zeffman, seen in some quarters as intellectually arrogant, might seem an outside bet as he is regularly among Olswang’s biggest billers. Incredibly, Goldstein himself billed in the region of £3.5m last year.
High-billing Fabrizio Carpanini could also throw his hat into the ring, while another outside bet would be technology partner Clive Gringras, a lawyer in a similar style to Goldstein and not the kind of man to be shy about putting himself forward.
Olswang will be hoping a consensus develops around one partner who also
has the backing of Devereux and chief operating officer Kevin Munslow. If that fails, expect blood on the floor.