The dynamic duo

Although rarely in the same room together, John Heller and Chris Jones have managed to launch French and German practices for Hammonds

John Heller has chosen a classy way to mark the anniversary of his quarter-century at Hammond Suddards Edge. Last week, the partnership voted on French and German mergers, taking what used to be a nine-partner Bradford firm into a new future as an aspiring European player. In 25 years, the firm’s population has risen from 90 to nearly 2,000.

The first vote was a week ago today (revealed in The Lawyer, 12 February), with 100 per cent approval for a link-up with Hausmann & Associés, a niche Parisian firm specialising in corporate law and intellectual property. Then came an identical result last Wednesday with the admittance of a seven-partner breakaway group from Knauthe Paul Schmitt’s Berlin and Munich offices.

When we meet, the man who coordinated the merger talks, Hammonds’ senior partner John Heller, has spent most of the morning on the telephone to Germany, anxiously awaiting a call telling him that the German partners have physically handed over their resignation letters, thus leaving him free to confirm that Hammonds will now have a German capability.

As for what he has done with the rest of the morning, it seems that Heller has been busy preparing for our interview – he barely pauses for breath during the first half-hour.

While he admits to being the driving force behind the mergers – greatly aided by corporate finance head Richard Burns and partner David Armitage – Heller is reluctant to leave managing partner Chris Jones out of the picture.

It is important, insists Heller, that Jones should be credited for his work on the deals. Which would be fine, apart from the fact that it is not possible to get both men together in the same room at the same time. When Heller is in London, Jones is elsewhere, and vice versa. After fortunately rejecting the idea of doing a simultaneous interview, with one of them on the phone and the other in the flesh (promising to be as easy to conduct as a chimpanzees’ tea party), we eventually agree that I will meet Jones the night before the Germany vote and Heller the following day.

Which is a shame, as Heller and Jones together must make an interesting combination. Where Jones is terse, Heller is verbose. This may have been exacerbated by Jones cramming in the interview before running off to dinner with a client, but he seems the more aggressive of the two, giving short answers to questions or tossing a question back again in response; Heller, though, quite happily chats away to himself. However, colleagues of theirs let it drop that the roles of good cop and bad cop are regularly swapped between the two.

Heller admits that they do not spend much time together. He points out that with a multi-office firm, whichever office the pair are absent from will complain that it is never visited. And now, of course, with three more offices to visit, Heller and Jones will see their air miles mount up even quicker.

The date for the full merger of Hausmann and the German team is 1 May, which seems a little speedy, especially given the fact that Hammond Suddards Edge has not even celebrated its first anniversary yet.

Neither Heller nor Jones, though, are having any of it, pointing out that the firm, and in particular Burns, has known both Continental parties for a while.

Jones uses a marriage analogy, saying that sometimes, if everything feels right, there is no reason not to get married quickly. But what if the chosen partner runs off with somebody else? “It’s a very relevant consideration that Hausmann might do that [given the competition],” agrees Jones.

He continues the metaphor in answer to the question of why Hammonds opted against a best friends relationship. “What’s the point in the best friends route? I would’ve thought most guys can knit down a relationship with their wife [better] than their best friend,” he argues. Some wives might disagree. Besides, Heller adds the next day, through doing the Edge Ellison merger last August, management has learned the benefits of bringing two firms together quickly. “The advantage for the London office was that the Edge team moved in within 60 days. There’s more of a chance of the merger working if you’re hugger-mugger next to each other,” he claims, adding that he has never heard any partner complaining about last year’s merger, “even when they’ve got a couple of pints down their throats”.

Heller stresses that one of the most important things that last year’s merger taught the Hammonds management was that it is imperative to respect each other’s cultures, so both the French and German offices can expect a large amount of autonomy from the outset.

From a business point of view, leaving Hausmann a free hand makes sense, as the Paris firm has a much greater international focus than Hammonds. “Christian Hausmann is trilingual and has much more experience in doing international work than anyone else in Hammonds,” admits Heller. “All the foreign lawyers that I’ve met speak varying degrees of English, from good to excellent.”

Heller himself is hoping to polish up his once fluent German, learned from his Czechoslovakian father, who moved to the UK just before the Second World War.

The whole process of finding a merger partner was hastened after Hammonds pulled out of the Commercial Law Affiliates (CLA) last November after deciding that the group was dawdling on its way to the altar.

“The CLA was formed to be an affiliation and the people who joined it weren’t looking to merge,” admits Jones. “But the market for legal services is changing so quickly, Hammonds began to be concerned that something more than an affiliation would be needed. Almost from the time we joined, we started on the process [towards merger] in terms of having conversations with people.”

He adds: “John’s a very energetic guy and has worked very hard on persuading. We could’ve stayed in CLA and brought them round to our way of thinking.” But in the end, Hammonds opted for the quicker option.

With seemingly every other firm trawling Europe to find merger partners, the need to tie one down is pressing in two aspects: first, the best firms are being snapped up quickly; second, if every other rival firm is able to offer trainees the prospect of living in Paris for a while, how do you continue to attract the best when all you can offer is a seat in Birmingham as your trump card? The latter seems to be a major motivating force for Heller.

“When I was in the gym last night I was thinking about this interview. I knew you’d ask me what my strategy was,” concludes Heller in an obviously rehearsed gambit. “Well, my ultimate strategy is to get fit so that I’m not completely outshone by my 15-year-old son when we go skiing soon. Otherwise, my number one strategy is to ensure that we’re doing things that’ll be more attractive to trainees.” n

Chris Jones and John Heller
Managing partner and senior partner
Hammonds Suddards Edge