Bonelli: Alberto Saravalle

Handling the founding partners and the rising stars is a tricky business. Bonelli managing partner Alberto Saravalle is pinning his hopes on teamwork

Struggling with a thick cold, Alberto Saravalle is outlining his plans for the future of Bonelli Erede Pappalardo.

He explains that his main challenge is to bring the firm together as a unit – the only way to prevent the type of generational rift which blew apart rival Italian firm Gianni Origoni Grippo & Partners last month (, 30 October).

“‘Either you go out as a team or die as individuals.’ That comes from Any Given Sunday with Al Pacino. It’s what we want everybody to feel,” coughs Saravalle.

The flu is doing nothing to slow him down on the subject of law firm unity, which is Saravalle’s favourite. But nothing will keep Saravalle away from his desk.

He will need all of that energy combined with a generous dash of Al Pacino’s swashbuckling leadership if he is to turn Bonelli from a collection of star lawyers into a fully unified law firm.

Lockstep step-change

Saravalle has taken over the helm of Bonelli at a sensitive time. The Italian legal market is waiting to see how the country’s top law firms will handle the transition from the first to the second generation of lawyers. The 18-partner split at Gianni, which swept away the firm’s managing partner and executive committee, is one example of such a transition gone wrong.

On the surface it looks like the two firms have similar problems. Like Gianni, Bonelli’s founding partners are still active members of the firm. Like Gianni, Bonelli has recently appointed a new managing partner and remuneration structure to give younger partners a bigger role to play in the firm.

Saravalle took over from Umberto Nicodano as managing partner this September. The firm has ditched the billing-based element of its remuneration model and replaced it with a modified lockstep which now accounts for 80 per cent of partner pay, with the rest decided on a discretionary basis.

At the same time, Saravalle is leading a new-look executive team made up of young partners Alessandro Balp, Fulvio Marvulli, Carlo Montagna, Andrea Carta Mantiglia and Marcello Giustiniani.

The new pay system means that what partners take home will depend more on how the firm is doing as a whole rather than how much work they can squeeze out from their own personal client relationships. In this way Saravalle hopes the firm will be less reliant on one or two star performers and solidify the firm as an integrated whole.

Working together is to be rewarded, and Saravalle sees it as part of the natural evolution of the firm. “Over time, we have adapted the partnership agreement to meet the new challenges. We changed our attorney compensation policy from an ‘eat what you kill’ approach to a modified lockstep,” he says.

Change is never easy. Saravalle will be walking a tightrope as managing partner, striking a fine balance between respecting the founders’ wishes for the firm and updating the culture to keep the younger partners involved.

“Obviously it’s something we’ve been aware of. We have two superstars in Franco Bonelli and Sergio Erede, who are now in their late 60s, but we believe we have the players to make the firm last a long time,” Saravalle comments.

Boom time

Comparisons can be drawn between Gianni Origoni and Bonelli Erede but that does not give the whole picture. For example, Bonelli’s founders have not had a major management role for some time now, at least not to the same degree as Franco Gianni and GianBattista Origoni.

Whereas Gianni Origoni’s problems stem from a clash between the first and second generation, the challenge Bonelli faces is to integrate its third generation of partners. That task will be no less difficult and will require the firm to move from a collection of star individuals to a unified, institutional firm.

If Saravalle does pull that off, it will be something of a first for a large domestic Italian firm.

Bonelli Erede Pappalardo was founded eight years ago by a three-way merger between some of Italy’s most respected boutiques. Saravalle himself was managing partner of the Bonelli boutique which joined up with Erede and Pappalardo. Since that time, Bonelli Erede Pappalardo has expanded into a full-service operation, going from 80 lawyers to several hundred.

Having established itself as one of the top corporate firms in Italy, Bonelli found its revenue growing in leaps of between 20 and 30 per cent a year, to hit its current level of e130m (£91.5m). But despite the good times rolling, Saravalle is wary of rapid expansion without control.

“Now what we need to do is consolidate the rapid growth, to keep the firm going beyond the contribution of the founding fathers. The firm should now work more as a team, despite the fact there are great individuals here. We need to bring the firm together as an institution,” Saravalle notes.

The Milanese empire

One thing that hits you about Saravalle is his accent. It is primarily a mix of London and New York, with Italian a distant third. He never struggles for the English word and for a moment you think you could be talking to a Californian who got lost on the way to the east coast.

This comes from Saravalle’s international background. Several formative years at Shearman & Sterling‘s New York office followed studies at Cambridge, which instilled an affection for the Anglo-Saxon world that continues to this day. He still loves the Big Apple, its jazz, its opera, its films and its big, brash law firms.

Feeling at ease in the UK and US, Saravalle will be making tentative steps to bring Bonelli on to the world stage.

“We already have a big chunk of the Italian market so we may need to look abroad. We perceive ourselves as an international firm based in Italy and we want to build on that reputation,” he declares.

The firm does not like to be pigeon-holed as Slaughter and May‘s best friend in Italy. Bonelli is committed to the best friends network, but is brewing up a few other ideas to keep itself going in the international arena.

The idea is that Bonelli may be best friends with Slaughter and May, but that is no reason to refuse the odd coffee with acquaintances.

“We have a very good network. We have things such as joint training, working groups and secondments. We also have excellent relationships with other firms. It is a non-exclusive network. We are an independent firm and we want to stay that way,” says Saravalle.

Although Bonelli may be able to handle itself in Europe and the US, the old Slaughter and May connections will help in places such as China and India. Thanks to the Victorians, UK firms have a knowledge and language advantage over their Italian counterparts.

China and Hong Kong in particular are areas Bonelli needs to focus on, with eastward investment flows from the peninsula increasing year on year.

“China is certainly a market we are looking at with interest. And we need to strengthen our position in the Indian market,” says Saravalle. “They are important challenges.”

“In the future it’s possible we may open offices, if so required, if our clients think it’s good idea. We could possibly share spaces there to the extent it makes sense economically,” he adds cautiously.

Saravalle’s plate is full. There are the numerous different generations of partners to reconcile, the firm’s international strategy to think about and the associate programmes to develop.

It is not just difficult to do that alone, it is impossible, just as Al Pacino says. The only way to get on top of all these issues is teamwork, and Saravalle stresses that with almost every sentence. Whether he gets that or not is now up to the other 57 partners.

Saravalle on the associates

Alberto Saravalle might not have a war for talent on his hands, but he at least will have an intensely fought battle. Bonelli associates are fair game for Anglo-Saxon firms such as Allen & Overy, Linklaters and Lovells, who have all expressed intentions to grow.

Here is Saravalle’s three-step plan to keep his young stars in the firm.

“Money is not the only way to keep or attract people any more. First, we are putting a lot of emphasis on internal education, in areas such as the law and languages. We will also sponsor someone if they want to take a masters degree at an American university.

“Second, we are increasing positive experiences with secondments to best friends. It offers variety.

“Finally, we are trying to create a clear internal path to partner and create a sense of advancement. Most of our partners come from our own ranks. I think now we’re also starting to look at quality of life. We want people to feel part of the firm altogether.”