Spare change

Vincent Denham may be down, but he is not out. The former chief executive of RadcliffesLeBrasseur shocked the legal world when he left the firm in abrupt and somewhat mysterious circumstances last month. Denham had been with Radcliffes for just two years and his sudden departure caused waves in the habitually calm Westminster seas, where the firm is based. The Houses of Parliament are more likely sites for bickering and backbiting, but with politicians and peers on holiday it was up to the usually sedate local lawyers to cause trouble.

The split between Denham and Radcliffes has been blamed on irreconcilable differences over strategy. As both parties have signed a compromise agreement that includes stringent confidentiality clauses, this profile is unfortunately not going to be able to shed new light on the events leading up to Denham’s hurried exit. Those hoping for scandal and intrigue should look away now. Denham isn’t talking – and why should he? He is on the job market after all, and muckraking in public is hardly going to appeal to prospective employers. His one slightly oblique comment is: “The challenges that a professional manager faces are at least as much internal as they are external.”

Denham is happier chatting about the curious role of a non-legally-qualified chief executive in a law firm or a set of chambers. “The way I’d describe the job is creating the environment within which barristers or solicitors can be more successful,” he muses. “All I’m really doing is getting the debris and the clutter out of their way to enable them to do what they’re trained to do and what they’re good at, which is practising law.”

Denham is something of an anomaly within the legal community. He seems more suited to a dynamic sales environment (why do I keep picturing second-hand cars?) than the hallowed portals of chambers, the Lord Chancellor’s Department or a blue blood Westminster firm. But he has worked in all three and states that he sees his future in a law-related role. “I’d like to think that the experience I’ve got would be useful, but I don’t know,” he says.

Law firms have generally tried to move with the times. Each firm may lay claim to a couple of recalcitrant partners, unable to adapt to life as a service industry. It is the rarefied world inhabited by barristers, complete with wigs, robes and etiquette, that perhaps needs more of a shake-up. Denham says that while this is still often the case, some barristers have embraced Darwin’s evolutionary theory and are prepared to change rather than become extinct.

“Interestingly, I’ve worked in the public sector,” says Denham. “I worked for the Legal Aid Board for a while, helping create the franchise scheme for the legal aid firms. I’ve worked as a consultant to barristers and solicitors. I’ve worked as a manager within chambers and law firms. So I’ve got a fair experience of how they operate and I can honestly say that barristers fall into two very distinct groups – those who are never going to change because they came to the Bar almost to be members of a club, and those who clearly know that they have to change and they just want somebody to help them do it.”

Denham is the proverbial new broom needed to sweep the dust away from some of the more fusty legal entities. His speech is littered with management gobbledegook, but there is no mistaking his meaning. Law firms have to realise that they are in the business of selling their services. Waiting for clients to notice how marvellous you are may be refined, but it is outmoded and hardly geared towards gaining new business.

So Denham is selling the very idea of selling. “Even now the word ‘selling’ is something that doesn’t sit too easily in the mouths of solicitors or barristers,” he says. “One of the things I came up against was the notion that a client somehow belonged to an individual partner at the firm. Law firms generally don’t cross-sell. They talk a good game about it, but they don’t do it.”

His first interaction with the law came when he handled a “small, discrete” project for Hammond Suddards (now Hammonds) in 1992, assessing how to derive more work from the firm’s top 20 clients.

He adds: “My first involvement as an employee was with St Philips in Birmingham. St Philips was the product of a merger between 7 and 2 Fountain Court, and at the time, towards the end of 1998, they merged to make what was then the biggest set in the country. Essentially, what I was trying to do was to put some business organisation and some structure around something that was inherently friendly, but not particularly well organised.”

He began quite literally with the foundations, arranging a scheme whereby the members of St Philips could invest in their premises. He explains: “The biggest advantage that a barristers’ set can have is to club together to buy premises or to buy a lease, and that’s what I did. I helped create the corporate structure around St Philips that pushed the practice rules at the Bar as far we could. So we had barristers as shareholders in a joint venture company that bought their building in Birmingham; and yet they still retained the ability to trade independently and compete with each other. I guess in terms of reform and ground-breaking work, I’d say that was probably my most enjoyable and successful piece of work.”

Following this success he moved to Radcliffes with a mandate to modernise. Perhaps he was a bit too modern for the firm. Even without the public spat, Denham’s itchy feet could well have taken him away from Radcliffes. Used to working for himself, Denham is the first to admit that his style is to take on projects which by their nature are finite. “My work has always been, for the last 10 years, project-related. Even as a manager, you can see a set of tasks that have to be undertaken and you reach a point where you think, ‘I can’t take this business any further’,” he says. “When I joined St Philips, it was with a clear intention of creating some organisation around a group of barristers. Once they’d bought the building and moved in, then I knew it was time for me to go and do something different. There was a natural end to it.

“I like the pioneering stuff; and then it’s time for someone else with a different set of skills to take over and consolidate. I don’t tend to do that. I start chipping away at a problem and somebody else can come after me and push it over. I don’t go into something saying, ‘I’m only going to do this for two or three years’. In a way, that happens by accident, because with the nature of change – and what we’re talking about is managing change – there is a limited period of time in which you can have maximum influence. Over a period of time, I think it’s inevitable that you’ll acquire baggage that becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.”

It is safe to say that Denham is absolutely rubbish at keeping himself occupied. Neither does he do ‘dress down’. Despite not working at the moment, he is smartly turned out in suit and tie and has his diary chock full of meetings. “I don’t enjoy not doing anything. I find it very difficult to relax. I’d regard myself as driven. I make myself busy. I’ve got plenty of things to do,” he says.

After me, he is off for tea with a City chum, then it is a meeting after lunch; and another later in the afternoon.

Rest and recuperation do feature somewhere on the agenda, albeit fairly low down: Denham is off to his house in Spain for a week or so. “For the first time in a long time I’m just taking the opportunity to chill out and smell the sea,” he says. “I’ll then come back and hit the bricks and decide what I’m going to do.”

A couple of Australian firms have expressed an interest in taking advantage of Denham’s services, so now it is time for Denham to manage his own process of change.
Vincent Denham
Non-legally-qualified chief executive