True Brit

Paul Maher masterminded the Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw merger, and he’s not stopping there. Julia Cahill meets a driven man

You can imagine Paul Maher going down a storm with the Americans at Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw.

According to firm chairman Tyrone Fahner, the US partners love Maher’s understated British humour (some of them have even drawn parallels with Hugh Grant). They find it “hilarious” when his schoolboy banter with UK partners Sean Connolly and Jeremy Clay suddenly engulfs a management meeting. And they can’t help but wind Maher up about his slightly disheveled appearance by asking him who does his hair.

What the Americans also love about the man who has just become London senior partner is his directness and his extraordinarily committed work ethic.

“Paul’s truthfully one of the smartest, most hard-working lawyers I’ve ever met, period,” says Fahner, who got to know Maher over many a late night-early morning phone call at the height of their firms’ merger talks. “He’s very direct and no-nonsense – which doesn’t mean he’s not caring, but he’ll tell any partner or any client his assessment of a situation more quickly than anyone that I’ve seen, and then he’s ready to give advice on what needs to be fixed.

“He’s a very likeable person because he’s so forthright. Whether you like what he says or not, it’s a very endearing quality.”

It is a quality that will no doubt define him as London senior partner, too.

Maher is pleased with what the merger has so far achieved. “I never think of us as a mid-sized London law firm anymore, which is quite a release,” he laughs.

It was a Chicago referral, for example, that recently gifted London the role of adviser to Canadian millionaire Galen Weston on his Selfridges bid. Every practice area now has a handful of global practice area leaders tasked with ‘maximising’ opportunities like this. “We’re much more organised and focused now on new opportunities and new clients,” emphasises Maher.

He describes the chemistry that has developed between the two firms as one of the “best things” about the first year of the merger. Seventy-six per cent of the Mayer Brown partners voted in favour of the merger in a closed ballot, with the balance against. “I can’t find that 24 per cent,” says Maher.

So what has been the toughest thing? “Getting people to say the name,” replies Maher with a wry smile. He was never a big fan of the cumbersome Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw option, but failed to sell his own concoction of Mayer Rowe & Brown. What he did extract, however, was the promise that Rowe & Maw would not simply be lopped off

further down the line. The name cannot be changed without partnership consent.

Turning down work because of conflicts with the US has also taken some getting used to. “The rules are very different [in the UK and the US]. We’ve had to wrestle with that,” Maher says. London has now hired its first full-time conflicts person, former Davis Polk & Wardwell partner Carolyne Paris, and Maher seems satisfied that London is getting a good deal in the trade-off.

Do not be fooled by this apparent calm, though. The “revolution”, as Maher calls it, is far from over.

High up on the Maher manifesto is London’s push on chargeable hours. This is not the US imposition it may look like. In fact, Rowe & Maw had been trying to get its assistants up to 1,600 chargeable hours for the previous five years. (In the US the target is much higher at approximately 2,200, based on 15 rather than six-minute blocks, as in the UK.)

London is now about 20 per cent off its chargeable hours target. If reached, the effect would be to double its profits. “This has always been part of the revolution in our business,” adds Maher. “Not everybody likes the idea – but tough. You can quote me on that.”

There will be other, more subtle, changes. Maher is widely expected to be more open in terms of the government of the firm than his predecessor Stuart James. More frequent partner meetings are planned. But Maher will not be slowed down by endless debate. He prefers the corporate decision-making model.

“The cultural change I’m trying to bring about is that we take decisions more quickly and then we move on,” he says. “In retrospect, some of those decisions might not be the best ones, but it’s more important that we take decisions and move on rather than debate for too long.

“In my opinion, the reason Rowe & Maw didn’t have a European presence is that we spent too long sitting on our hands talking about it and trying to find the right partner. That’s why there haven’t been many transatlantic mergers, but millions of merger talks.”

Mayer Brown’s fledgling operations in France and Germany have given Maher the taste for international growth. Pre-Rowe & Maw, this was New York partner Mark Wojciechowski’s baby, but Maher has been working closely with him to move things on. The firm is in the process of setting up a European board, and Fahner has asked Maher to be chair.

As well as building out the existing offices, Maher wants to see two or three more European offices – Italy, Spain and the Netherlands being the most obvious choices. The US currently brings in 70-75 per cent of turnover and, not surprisingly, Maher wants to see that shift.

“I’d like to start the debate pretty soon,” he says, being candid about the internal opposition he knows he will face, particularly in the US. “I don’t think anyone in London, Germany, France or Brussels thinks we should do anything other than get bigger. It’s the US that needs to be convinced about opening additional offices.”

His ambitions for London will also come up against some serious doubters. Maher is known to favour another London merger. “London’s got to get bigger if we want to be known as a serious corporate and finance practice,” says Maher. At the moment, corporate contributes only 20 per cent of global revenue, whereas Maher wants to see that hit 40 per cent.

His sense of urgency is shared by Fahner. “I’m impatient because I’m 60 years old. Paul’s impatient because he’s in his early 40s,” Fahner sums up.

With so much to do, you might expect to see Maher on the deal circuit a little less frequently. But no. “I haven’t turned the lights off,” he says. “The only basis on which I’ll do this job is as a full-time, working corporate partner.”

His clients would expect nothing less. “I believe him because I don’t think Paul could live without deals to work on,” says ICI general counsel Michael Herlihy.

I am inclined to believe him too.
Paul Maher
London Senior Partner
Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw