Charity begins at home

After thirty-two years working at Nabarro Nathanson, David Bramson is ready to retire, spend time with his family and gove something back to society. Vanessa Pawsey reports

David Bramson, senior partner at Nabarro Nathanson, is very, very reserved. He is certainly economical with words, but then again maybe he’s just wary of the press.

Bramson has been with the firm since 1968. In that time he has watched it grow from a 10-partner family business to a firm with more than 100 partners, with offices in London, Reading, Sheffield and Brussels.

But at the end of the financial year he is retiring as senior partner. The official retirement age at Nabarros may be 60, but Bramson is determined to go at the grand old age of 59. He gives the impression that he wants to spend time with his family and wants to make up for the long days and nights spent working rather than being at home. “Retiring now means I can give my wife a year back,” he says.

Bramson has certainly put in the hours. He headed the commercial property department from 1987 until he was voted in as senior partner in 1995. Since then, he has overseen the firm shifting to an industry sector-focused approach and has been responsible for implementing Nabarro 2000, the firm’s growth strategy.

Managing partner Nicole Paradise says: “He was ahead of the game. Now everybody thinks along industry lines, but we’ve been doing it since 1995, and it was [Bramson] who got the partners to buy into the strategy and to follow it.” According to the current head of property David Wright, Bramson is one of the leading property lawyers of his generation, and has “always looked at the issues from the client’s perspective as much as from the lawyer’s”.

Bramson is far more modest. He does not single himself out for attention, talking only about the firm’s achievements without ever mentioning his own. “The strategy was started three or four years ago,” he says. “We wanted to become much more focused on the areas where we already had a reputation to build on.” But he quickly adds: “I can’t talk too much about the strategy – it’s for us to know and for you to see the results.”

But is the strategy working? “We’ve been honing it in for the past year or so, and it’s really come together. We’ve seen the results in our figures, and now we have more clients knocking on our door,” he says.

Bramson believes that the legal market is more competitive than ever but, despite the fact that he’s leaving, he claims it is a great place to be. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many people trying to buy into it,” he quips, citing US and accountancy firms as examples. For him the challenges lie in the competitive market, which forces firms to differentiate or deteriorate.

He claims Nabarros’ strength lies in its people. He admits that after 32 years at the same firm he hasn’t got much ammunition for comparison, but he says that incoming lawyers always comment on the firm’s open culture and transparency. It is no surprise when Bramson says his door is always open and that lawyers can drop in if they have an issue to discuss.

As well as being Bramson’s last job, it is only his third. He was articled in a small firm in London’s West End where he did mainly commercial work. Then, against everybody’s advice, he went to work for oil company Mobil.

“I liked the idea of being totally committed to one client. But it didn’t work out, and I wasn’t getting enough work or experience for that stage in my career. So when I saw an advert for a property lawyer at Nabarros I decided to apply. When I got the job I couldn’t move again because it would look bad on my CV, so I decided to stay.”

Bramson worked on his most exciting case while he was doing his articles. His firm acted for US author Leon Uris, who had written a novel entitled Exodus, about extermination camps in Germany. Uris named a Polish doctor, claiming that he had carried out experimental operations on prisoners of war at Auschwitz. After reading the book, the doctor promptly sued for libel.

“It was a mind-blowing case,” says Bramson. “It was in the papers every day for about three weeks. Because of the degree of organisation of the Germans, we were able to prove he’d carried out quite a lot of these operations, and we were able to get survivors of the camp to give evidence.”

More recently, Bramson has acted for Mapeley, which has just been awarded the contract for providing property services to the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. It is one of the biggest outsourcing projects ever, and has been made more complex by the number of properties and the range of facilities that the company owns.

“I thought I’d got past the stage of working through the night, but I was up for three of them in a row,” he complains; but his face suggests that he quite enjoyed it.

His expression makes me wonder how someone who clearly loves his job will cope with early retirement. He says he intends to travel and to do some work for children’s charities. “I always call my son my conscience because he’s a social worker and he’s enabled me to see something being put back into society. Now I’d like to put something back,” he says.

He will not be turning his back on the firm entirely. If Nabarros wants to use his expertise then he will happily offer his services for projects. But he will not act as a consultant. He says there is a danger that his extended presence could mean his successor is continually looking over their shoulder.

This is another reason he decided to take early retirement. “If I hadn’t said something now, people would start wondering about who my successor was going to be, and I don’t think that would be in the firm’s best interest. A long handover period or leaving it until the last minute would be wrong,” he says. “Once I’ve handed over I’ll be there for the new person for a few months, but they’ll be in control.”

Prospective candidates have to be nominated before they can go forward for election, and everything should be in place within six weeks. Bramson says he has mixed feelings about leaving. He says he will miss his friends. But, after a pause, he says he will not miss being at people’s beck and call all of the time.

And what does the future hold for Nabarros? He won’t commit to an answer. “We’ve put in the building blocks for the firm to grow, and during the past five years the team has turned the finances around. Now we’re a highly profitable firm working for excellent clients. In the future we could merge or we could develop internationally – but that’s for my successor to decide.”

It seems like Bramson has made up his mind. He really is out of there.
David Bramson
Senior partner
Nabarro Nathanson