Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partner Barry O’Brien may have been through a tough couple of years, what with the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) protracting a conflict of interest case against him. But the former corporate head, who has been sworn back into the firm’s partnership after two years in a consultancy role (The Lawyer, 28 April), is now fully focused on the future.
Described by one of his colleagues as a “superhero”, O’Brien was last August fined £9,000 by the SDT after admitting a conflict of interest for representing businessman Philip Green on his multibillion-pound 2004 attempted takeover of Marks & Spencer, an existing Freshfields client.
O’Brien remained as a consultant until the SDT case ran its course, but with that now well and truly in the past he has been thrust back into the senior ranks, joining corporate partners Will Lawes, Ed Braham and Julian Long in chairing one of four groups within the firm’s corporate department, which is run by Mark Rawlinson.
“He’s a real character, a larger-than-life sort of guy,” says Rawlinson of O’Brien. “If you’re in a real hole – if you’re up against it on a transaction or you’ve got a client in a real mess – he’s very supportive. I think he’s the best person in a crisis situation.”
O’Brien’s client list makes for impressive reading (names such as Smith & Nephew, Invensys, Mars and Tesco are representative of a much longer list) and, according to Rawlinson, he is held in enormously high regard by all of them. Notably, in the 1990s, after coming up with a rescue plan for Lloyd’s of London that was said to have saved the insurance market from collapse, O’Brien was awarded the Lloyd’s Silver Medal. The decoration is typically awarded to insurance brokers and had not been presented to a lawyer since 1824.
“That represented the outstanding contribution ;he’d ;made,” ;says Rawlinson. “If you were to ask clients, they’d say he’s very much on their side. He’s very good at identifying with the client.”
From O’Brien’s point of view, while the ongoing credit crunch has changed the nature of much of the work being undertaken in the City, his client focus has not altered.
That said, he admits that the mix of work has changed.
“There’s a steady stream of rights issues going on and we’re involved in quite a number of those,” he says. “The private equity market’s not as closed for business as people think, but private equity houses are beginning to explore different investment techniques and different investment opportunities.”
This creates a change of focus for O’Brien and his colleagues in that private equity houses are moving away from their traditional highly leveraged take-private strategies.
“They’re willing to put more straight equity in and rely upon the leverage that’s already there,” explains O’Brien. “They can make the numbers work because a year ago debt was available but prices were so much higher. Now debt isn’t as plentiful, but prices have come down.”
The fact that corporates are now using the equity markets to raise capital means that junior lawyers moving through the department are having to adapt their skills to a change in economic circumstances – something that brings O’Brien back to his own rookie days.
“When I first started my career as a corporate lawyer it was rights issue after rights issue after rights issue,” he says. “Until the credit crunch hit we’d had about 10 years of corporates financing themselves with bank debt or bond debt and not having to resort to the equity capital markets to finance their balance sheets. We’d got to the stage where there were share buybacks rather than share issues.
“We’ll have our corporate lawyers doing a lot more equity issue work than has been around for 10 years.”
The changing nature of the corporate landscape in the past few months has provided proof, as if it were needed, that no practice has the freedom to rest on its laurels. This, says O’Brien, means he and his management colleagues must review constantly the kind of guidance they need to provide to their teams.
“At any stage we always look to identify the next change in the market,” he says. “We have to be prepared for that, and that involves some real hands-on training of partners and associates. At the moment we’re putting rights issues and vendor placing right at the top of our agenda, while six months ago the new Companies Act was top of the agenda.”
O’Brien is clearly relishing being back in the fray.