South African Neville Eisenberg is a long way from his roots, but as Julia Cahill discovers, the BLP managing partner feels right at home in the City

He is hardly the archetypal managing partner. Elected at 37, Neville Eisenberg is younger than most of his counterparts across the City. What is more, he is second generation South African. He still has the unassuming quality of someone who arrived here as an outsider. In fact, it is hard to imagine Eisenberg toughing it out across the deals table – he seems far too nice – although he spent the first 10 years of his Berwin Leighton career in corporate, acting for the likes of Del Monte and steaming ahead to partnership in 1996.

Eisenberg’s track record in the job is hardly typical either. Since his election just under three years ago, he has driven his firm to achieve things that his competitors are still struggling for. First a UK merger generally perceived as a success story, if not wildly exciting; and now a cannily-thought-out US deal with the potential to deliver the firm’s missing European capability. No mean feat for a man who came to London never intending to stay.

Eisenberg grew up in the beautiful setting of Stellenbosch, just behind Cape Town. But if his childhood was idyllic, coming of age during Apartheid in South Africa was less so. At university in Johannesburg, studying business and then law, Eisenberg became interested in politics. He was elected to the Student Union, a role that automatically exposed him to police scrutiny. “It was a mixture of political activism and drawing attention to the injustice of the Apartheid system in South Africa,” he says. “The police always kept close tabs on what was done.”

When he later joined Werksmans, Eisenberg worked under the auspices of Lawyers For Human Rights, mostly trying to help children who had been detained without trial. “It was very frustrating,” he recalls. “It was hard to make any progress, but on the other hand these kids were so helpless that even just visiting them in prison I think hopefully gave them some hope that they weren’t completely abandoned. Occasionally we succeeded in getting a child released, when we made the Minister of Justice’s life sufficiently difficult.”

He does not over-egg his contribution. “There are people who were at much greater personal risk and who achieved far more,” he acknowledges.

In the end it was his frustration with the system, as well as the chance for further study, that prompted his move to the UK to attend the London School of Economics. Then, after a stint in the Channel Islands, he arrived at what was Berwin Leighton. “It was the tail end of the ’80s and boom in London. It was all very exciting at the time and I thought it would be fun to try and get a few years of work experience in London. But it wasn’t really a conscious decision to move to England forever at the time.”

Somewhat ironic, then, that he is now running the show.

“I just found the work that I was doing very exciting and stimulating and the atmosphere at the firm absolutely wonderful – very supportive and very go-getting,” he says. “All of that combined to hook me in. Before I knew it, I’d been here for years and years.”

Although it was the old Berwin Leighton that got Eisenberg hooked, he was elected as managing partner on a ticket for change: by the end of 1999 a strategy review was pointing to the need to create a much more balanced firm. “The review was quite significant for a firm which at that stage was quite domestic and high profile in property, but had some way to go in developing its corporate and finance business,” he says.

It is against this backdrop that Eisenberg narrates the story of Berwin Leighton, Paisner & Co and Kramer Levin: “The merger and the alliance didn’t happen by chance. They happened because they developed out of a strategy which we’ve tried to stick to through thick and thin, through changes in the market and turbulent economic conditions. I think it’s served us incredibly well.”

It is a line you often hear repeated by Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) partners, who seem by all accounts to be an extremely cohesive bunch. Partner departures have so far been few and far between. This week’s news that construction head Terry Fleet is leaving for Nabarro Nathanson is arguably the most disappointing for the firm since former property head David Taylor left prior to the merger.

Back in 1999, Eisenberg admits to feeling that the firm had some catching up to do. “I felt that there was a sense of urgency and I think that was shared by the management team,” he says. “I was very ambitious for the firm. I thought a lot of work was needed in order to create a solid platform for developing the firm in the future. I felt there needed to be a more purposeful, dynamic progress to keep things moving faster than before.”

This same sense of urgency explains the push for integration at breakneck speed after the vote went through on the Paisner deal in March 2001.

“From the research we’d done and the advice we’d taken pre-merger, it seemed as though most people took 18 months to integrate two professional firms. We felt that was much too long. We wanted to do it in six months. We think we succeeded. It was exhausting, but it was worth it,” says Eisenberg.

Tangible benefits have included attracting ex-Garretts hotels star Andrew Little. By bolting Little’s practice on to Paisner’s solid reputation in the sector and Berwin Leighton’s prowess for property and planning, the combined practice has been soaring up the rankings.

By the official merger date on 1 May, Eisenberg says that 80 per cent of the merging process was already completed. People were physically moved around shortly afterwards. The next turning point will be moving out of Paisner’s old Fleet Street offices entirely and relocating the remainder of the firm into St Magnus House, which is right next door to Berwin Leighton’s Adelaide House.

Midway through the interview, Eisenberg jumps up and hurries me into another meeting room to show me the view. Externally it is no great beauty, but the plush fit-out is underway and due for completion in September 2003, when the two buildings will be run as one from Adelaide.

There is a tangible air of excitement about Eisenberg. When we meet, he and his management team are just days away from their first joint committee meeting with new US ally Kramer Levin, with BLP playing host. Berwin Leighton first came into contact with the New York firm three years ago, when it was “doing a bit of a tour of London”. But after hitting on the idea of a strategic alliance with a New York firm as the best way to achieve its European ambitions, BLP nevertheless undertook close examination of the market. A bunch of partners, as well as Eisenberg and senior partner Harold Paisner, spent three months meeting as many firms as possible.

“There wasn’t some alliance minibus going round the town,” Eisenberg says with a chuckle. “Different people went out at different times. It was worth investing the time because it was such an important step for us.”

He found it a fascinating experience.

“There is enough consolidation in the market that it’s become easier to have those kinds of discussions internationally,” he explains. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say there’s a set of rules, but there’s an accepted formula for having these discussions and usually you come away with a sense of whether people are interested.”

The rest is history. Kramer Levin’s strategic ambitions and the timescale to which it was working shone out as being closely in tune with those of BLP. The deal was signed in September after a further three months of intensive discussions.

“What really stood out was that, whoever we spoke to, whether it was consultants or other lawyers, Kramer Levin was recommended as the hot, up-and-coming New York corporate law firm. Everyone said we should talk to them. Some of them mentioned other names, but Kramer Levin was the common name that came up,” says Eisenberg.

The strategic alliance now has to live up to its name.
Already, progress is being made on a joint conflicts checking system. For Eisenberg, the deal must draw a hugely satisfying conclusion to his first term as managing partner, although he is cagey about whether he will stand again.

If he chooses not to, any successor will have a lot to live up to in this quietly passionate, ambitious man.

Neville Eisenberg
Managing partner
Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP)