David Willis

Fiona Callister meets David Willis, Forsters’ senior partner, who has helped nurture the young firm which grew out of the ashes of Frere Cholmeley Bischoff.

Forsters’ senior partner David Willis is a solicitor of the old school variety. While the Forsters PR machine has leapt into action to celebrate the firm’s first anniversary, he retains a slightly bemused air as to why a journalist has been sent to talk to him.

Maybe it is his specialisation in private client work that makes him taciturn, but he has the reticence of a partner from a firm as old as the hills, but which is, in reality, still in its infancy.

Forsters was born just a year ago after the demise of Frere Cholmeley Bischoff, one of London’s longest established firms, which was brought down by debts incurred through massive foreign expansion in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Eversheds stepped in to merge with the firm and take on the majority of its partners.

But the property and private client departments, together with some corporate, media and litigation partners, decided that their future did not lie within the Eversheds empire and opted instead to set up their own 11-partner practice which became Forsters.

“When I became a partner with Frere Cholmeley in 1978, I assumed that I would be there until they carried me out in a box,” he remembers.

“But Forsters has given us all a new lease of life and I feel rejuvenated by the challenge of setting up a new firm.”

But reading between the lines, having to start all over again was not something that Willis relished.

While he may sound confident now, the prospect of breaking away must have been frightening for partners faced with having to pay off their share of Frere Cholmeley’s debts before the buy-out of the office’s lease by the landlord cleared the overdraft.

“It was not a nice time, as it was like a marriage breaking up where the couple are still living in the same house.

“But we had a long list of loyal clients who stayed with us.”

One year on, Willis is proud of the fact that Forsters does not have any debt, due to very careful budgeting and a year that, he says, has been more successful than the partners had even hoped for.

“We have been very conscious about our costs and try and economise where we can. We also try to have a system for justifying expenditure and are efficient about billing and debt collection,” he explains.

To celebrate its first anniversary the firm has made up three property partners, bringing the firm up to a 15-strong team.

As to the firm’s successful first year, which has seen it handle deals such as the sale of three of London’s most well-known restaurants, The Ivy, Le Caprice and Sheekeys, to the Belgo Group, and a role in forming the partnership that owns the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, Willis has to be cajoled into singing his firm’s praises.

“Is it appropriate for me to blow my own trumpet?” he enquires. When assured that it would not break interview etiquette, Willis launches into a plug for his firm that would make a PR professional wince.

“One is always surprised when one’s optimism is justified. I have been delighted at how loyal clients are,” he says.

Pushed a little further, Willis admits that three of the private client partners at Forsters, including himself, are listed by Chambers as being leaders in their field.

But in retrospect is there anything that Willis would have done differently in the first year of Forsters?

“I would not have put some of the plants in our garden,” smiles Willis, who in addition to his role as senior partner, is also head gardener.

The garden is the firm’s small terrace, dotted with pots, some of which contain plants from Willis’ own garden at home.

But while he seems delighted with the progress of his new firm, the two hydrangeas that are now beginning to fade are a mild source of irritation.

“If I had the time again, I would have planted a different variety of hydrangea,” he tuts.
David Willis
Senior partner