Stephen Ball

After spending more than 10 years practising in-house, Nomura’s chief general counsel has joined the UK law practice of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. Claire Smith talks to Stephen Ball about the career opportunity he just could not pass up.

Nomura’s chief general counsel Stephen Ball says that he had a flood of job offers before he decided to join Los Angeles firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher to head its UK law practice.

So why did he opt to make his name as the first in-house counsel to go to a US firm in London, despite offers including the chance to become head of legal at ABN Amro?

Ball’s characteristically laid back response is: “It was the fact that Gibson Dunn had Californian origins – I have always preferred Baywatch to Coronation Street.”

Ball has spent the last two months on gardening leave after quitting the top post at the Japanese banking group in February. Since leaving Nomura he has considered joining Jiway, a stock exchange internet site established by Morgan Stanley, as well as other private practice options.

He says: “A number of international financial institutions and global law firms contacted me.” But his mind was already made up.

“While I was at Nomura I worked with Gibson Dunn for about the last three years on a number of different transactions.

“I have come to really respect the lawyers both here and in the US and one day the managing partner Wesley Howell phoned me up and said, ‘Look, we are going to build a very high quality English practice, are you interested in heading it?’

“It was not so much a conscious decision. This was just too exciting an opportunity to pass up.”

Ball has spent the last three years in the top job at Nomura, where he was also managing director and a member of the board of directors and executive committee. Before joining the group he spent eight years at Bankers Trust, first as the general counsel for Europe in London, and then for Asia in Hong Kong.

But it was the four years he spent at Linklaters in New York which tempted him into a US firm.

“I am used to working in an American environment. If you count my time at Bankers Trust, I have worked in America or in an American environment for 10 or 11 years.”

Sources close to Ball say that it will not be the move to a US firm that will be the challenge, but the fact that he is moving back to private practice after spending most of his career in-house.

He will start with a non-existent client list, and though he has a reputation as a strong manager, it might not be enough to build a UK practice.

Gibson Dunn managing partner Wesley Howell says: “Stephen worries about it. He’s going to say, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to find these clients,’ but I don’t have any doubt that clients will come to him.”

However, Ball says that he is not concerned about it, citing his contacts both in law firms and in-house as just what he needs to get Gibson Dunn’s practice up and running.

He says: “Having been a client for the last 10 years, I know who I think are great lawyers in the English, American and international law firms.

“I have already started phoning them up and there are three new partners in the pipeline.”

Ball is only the second UK qualified lawyer in Gibson Dunn’s London practice – former Nabarro Nathanson property finance partner Alan Samson joined earlier this year (The Lawyer, 24 January).

Ball says that he hopes there will be eight UK qualified partners in the office by the end of the year.

“My role is going to involve everything. It’s going to be managing, it’s going to be building the practice and practising law, everything that’s needed to really start a strong practice,” he says.

Despite the enormous task ahead of him, Ball is completely relaxed about his new role. After just nine days in the job he is heading off for a snowboarding holiday in Utah this week. “I’m just about good enough to get up, stay on for a minute and then fall off,” he says.

No doubt Ball needs a break after two hectic months on gardening leave, when he did a lot of pro bono work for a flying hospital in the US and played househusband, looking after his children while his wife was out of the country.

He managed to find time to holiday in the Cayman Islands as well, but it is the charity work that Ball is really keen to talk about.

“I have been doing pro bono work for the flying hospital, which is this jet based in the States and is completely kitted out as a hospital with full medical services.

“The charity says, ‘Okay the Sudan needs a whole series of operations.’ It identifies what is needed and identifies US doctors and nurses and it flies them all out.

“We are setting up a UK charity so a plane may well be based here.”

Ball says that he gave the charity as much help as it needed, and that he did it because the time had come to “put something back”.

And the time has come in many respects this year. Ball has probably made his biggest career move so far – and has a big challenge ahead.

But to that he just smiles and says: “I think every so often in your life you have to reinvent yourself. This was just so exciting, so different, it proved irresistible.”
Stephen Ball
Head of UK practice
Gibson Dunn & Crutcher