Having flirted with globalisation, under senior partner Simon Johnston Nabarro has reverted to focusing more on its core UK market – and is reaping the rewards

Nabarro” />There is no getting away from it, Nabarro is one of the most stolid firms in the country. It is never hit by management coups. It does not recruit star laterals. It does not launch new offices, practices or initiatives. Its leading lawyers do not flounce out to grab the Yankee dollar.

That is the public perception, but here are a few surprising adjectives that sources used to describe Nabarro’s management team: ‘ruthless’, ‘driven’ and yes, ‘successful’.

There has been a quiet revolution gathering pace during the seven-year regime of senior partner Simon Johnston and managing partner Nicky Paradise, and a peek at the figures reveals impressive results.

During the past five years average profit per equity partner (PEP) at the firm has shot up by 64 per cent, from £345,000 to £567,000; Nabarro has boosted its profit margin from 34 per cent to 39 per cent; and revenue per lawyer has rocketed by 52.5 per cent. This is a well-managed firm.

“It’s driven by figures,” says a former partner. “They wanted a profitable machine.”

And that is largely what it has got. But still, as Johnston quotes from The Lawyer: “We’re unflatteringly perceived as being more Pringle than Prada.”

Johnston says this as if the reason for such as perception is a mystery. And on the surface, in Johnston and Paradise, the firm has a charismatic management team. On a purely superficial level, Paradise is the glamorous litigator who could have been cast by Hollywood, and Johnston is the jovial, blokey Aussie who seems to get along with everyone. But behind the façade they form a hard-nosed team that has weeded out those practices and people that do not fit with their ideal of a slick, well-oiled machine.

Johnston and Paradise are very much a team. They both made partner in 1990 and their management styles and strategies have been shaped by their shared experience of the firm’s travails.

At that time Nabarro Nathanson (as it was then known) was one of the top 10 firms in the City, but by 1996 it was in crisis. Average PEP had slumped to £77,000, the firm had a £20m overdraft and partners were leaving in droves.

Johnston sounds scarred by the experience. “We had tough times in the 1990s,” he admits. “We didn’t have a strong enough business and that hurt us financially.”

The firm saw its offices in Warsaw and Dubai taken on by other firms and it pulled out of an alliance with New York’s Weil Gotshal & Manges, where Johnston had been stationed in the early 1990s.

“Before we got the benefit of those offices we had to withdraw. We learnt the hard way about how difficult being international is,” says Johnston. “We made the decision to strengthen the UK practice, to refocus on that and really focus on being good at what we do.”

That is Johnston’s mantra. But it took a while to kick in. His predecessor David Bramson spent a great deal of energy trying to convince anyone who would listen that Nabarro was “more than a property firm”.

But as one former partner says: “Simon realised that it was a property firm and we’d better get back to being that.”

Johnston is a corporate lawyer and had observed the corporatisation of the real estate market. He worked hard with the property lawyers to make sure the firm was servicing its real estate clients in the corporate market.

“We’ve rebuilt the firm between 1997 and 2007,” states Johnston.

And that rebuilding has resulted in Nabarro jettisoning its charities and private client practices. It closed its Reading office when it failed to pull in the big deals to justify its existence. Leading public sector lawyers Malcolm Iley and Helen Randall left for Trowers & Hamlins.

But that was okay. The firm may have lost Iley, once dubbed ‘the godfather of public sector lawyering’, and his protégée Randall, but it kept some profitable bits of the public sector practice.

“Prima donnas are not tolerated,” says another former partner. “The focus has always been on firm spirit rather than individual egos. Individual egos are seen as a bad thing, but individual egos make much better news. It’s hardly surprising you don’t see them in the pages of The Lawyer. But that said, he’s been very successful in encouraging team players.”

While Johnston seems bemused by Nabarro’s dullard image, he does not really want to be Prada. Johnston is more Steve Waugh than Shane Warne.

While arch real estate rival Berwin Leighton Paisner shells out big bucks on high-flying partners, Nabarro emphasises fitting in with the team.

“We don’t have the mercurial personalities and huge egos,” Johnston agrees, “just people who do the job very well.”

According to Johnston, last year’s rebrand aimed “to get a over a perception that the firm is pretty old and pretty dull”.

Again the firm jettisoned the unnecessary. It dropped ‘Nathanson’ from its name and the ‘s’ from its nickname, added the tagline ‘clarity matters’ and vowed to write its contracts in plain English.

Instead of launching a new image, Nabarro has reinforced its old one: simplicity and efficiency are key. It may not be too exciting, but Johnston would not really want it any other way.

Name: Simon Johnston Firm: Nabarro
Title: Senior partner
Turnover: £123m
Number of lawyers: 339
Simon Johnston’s CV
Education: Law, University of Western Australia
Work history:
1983-86: Articled clerk, Robinson Cox (now Clayton Utz)
1986-90: Associate, Nabarro Nathanson 1990-2001: Partner, Nabarro Nathanson
2001-present: Senior partner, Nabarro