American duty

Managing partner- who needs it? That’s the attitude of Stephen Fiamma, who’s calling time on ground hog day at the office and retuning to practice. Dearbail Jordan meets the man who has had enough of committees

For Stephen Fiamma, head of US firm Jones Day Reavis & Pogue’s London office, being a managing partner is more trouble than it’s worth.

Fiamma has spent the past 10 years as a managing partner, juggling the running of the office while notching up in excess of 2,000 billable hours each year as the head of Jones Day’s tax practice.

However, he is about to put an end to the insane hours he has been working by moving to Allen & Overy at the beginning of May to become the firm’s first US tax partner (The Lawyer, 13 March).

The gruelling rigours of being a perfectionist are all too obvious as he says: “I never have a day off. I am not a major workaholic and I am not obsessed, but if you want to do the job properly there are things that you just have to do.

“But there has never been a day when I have been completely out of the loop without having to deal with a client, or recruitment, or selling-to-the-firms type matter.”

In his new position he will have more free time and the fact that his third child is about to go off to boarding school means a change at home, too.

“[The job] was almost coincidental with my decision to send my youngest child to boarding school, which is a wrenching change because it does alter the way that you lead your life,” he says.

Until last year, the trend in the UK market was for local lawyers to move to US firms which had opened offices in the capital. But Fiamma is the second high-profile US lawyer to choose a London firm over one in his own jurisdiction – derivatives lawyer Schuyler Henderson left Baker & McKenzie in December last year, to join Norton Rose.

Fiamma reasons: “I am a long-term resident, I have made my career here in London and for me going to a local firm makes more sense than someone who does not have the same long-term commitment to London that I do.”

Like Henderson, Fiamma has spent his career practising purely at US firms, beginning in 1978 at Sage Gray, which was then the oldest law firm in New York, but which subsequently closed in the late 1980s.

After three years, Fiamma joined Wendermurase & White, now known as Marks & Murase, until 1983 when he and his wife decided to leave New York for the UK.

“New York at that point was getting into its declining phase. It has now bounced back considerably but by the time that 1983 had rolled around we thought that it was going to be a very tough place to raise children,” he says.

After instructing a raft of headhunters, Fiamma was presented with a number of options including moving to Surrey & Morse’s London office.

The practice merged with Jones Day in 1986 and just five years later Fiamma began his tenure as head of the London office.

Fiamma is quick to assert that he wanted to practice US tax law since he first decided to become a lawyer.

“I was always going to tax law right from the early stages, so I took an advanced degree in tax at New York University which is perhaps the best institution for tax,” he says.

Patrick Mears, head of corporate tax at Allen & Overy, who will be working closely with Fiamma, says: “Tax lawyers are seen as a strange species. They have to combine heavy commercial aspects as well as technical skills. And it is not just technical skills, they need to be able to pore over books which other lawyers don’t like doing.”

Fiamma himself recognises that tax law is not seen as the most glamorous practice area.

“Tax lawyers by nature are not usually very contentious people at the end of the day because we are usually on the same side, against the tax authorities,” he says.

And unlike fields such as corporate or commercial law, where lawyers’ reputations are staked on the size of the client, tax practitioners advise on issues as part of a larger deal, and are not seen as rainmakers in their own right.

Charles Lubar, senior partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius’ London office, says: “A large number of tax lawyers do very well but are fed work, they are not entrepreneurial.”

But he adds that his long time friend Fiamma is highly respected in the small field of US tax lawyers in London.

It is easy to believe that Fiamma is just happy to be moving to a firm where he can concentrate on the reason why he became a lawyer in the first place – to practise law.

“Of course it will be different but if I can spend more time working on legal matters then it will probably be more satisfying.”

His reasoning sounds remarkably similar to that of Peter Kavanagh, former managing partner at Theodore Goddard, who, because of a heavy workload, stepped down in May last year to return to practising in the firm’s corporate group.

Fiamma says: “I was doing a lot of work even by City standards in terms of the commitment of time to clients.

“Then there is the whole administration of the office. There are lots of things that require full-time attention, recruiting being one of them.

“There is no substitute for the time and effort it takes working lawyer-to-lawyer to get people to come on board.”

However, Lubar is sceptical about why Fiamma is leaving the firm, saying that US firms are unwilling to invest in any other practice outside of the immediate jurisdiction.

“I think that it is typical that US firms do not have a strategy in London. US firms are not willing to make a commitment to UK practices,” he says.

He adds that if there had been an issue with management, further investment by the US parent could have meant some of Fiamma’s responsibilities could have been handled by someone else.

Fiamma remains philosophical about his position, stating that now was just the right time to move on, nine months after he was approached by Allen & Overy.

“It will be fun. I will be the new kid on the block and that will have challenges and issues,” he says.

He will work closely with Jeff Golden, head of Allen & Overy’s US practice, and alongside two lawyers in the firm’s New York office.

But he will be the only US tax lawyer in the UK office.

Peter Nias, head of tax at McDermott Will & Emery‘s London office, says: “Having people working in the same area helps. I felt vulnerable when I was the only UK tax lawyer in a US firm.”

But Fiamma says: “It is not daunting to me. Of course there is the element of uncertainty and an element of risk in any transition but given where I am already in terms of my knowledge of the firm, I think if you don’t make those leaps, don’t take those risks, you don’t grow.”

Nor is Fiamma concerned about stepping down from management to plain old partner level.

He says: “Within our firm we have committees. Some people feel that the mark of success is to be a member of those committees which I have.

“Sometimes you look back and think ‘well was this worth all the anticipation?’ and it is not particular to this firm but, if you allow the external world to set your goals, you will always be running up a treadmill.”

Fiamma expects the office to grow under the guidance of the new managing partner Robert Thomson, formally of Denton Hall where he headed the firm’s Hong Kong office.

He says his only regret on leaving the firm is not starting Jones Day’s UK practice until 1997: “We probably should have started recruiting earlier.”

But this is not the opinion of his friend Lubar, who can only highlight Fiamma’s successes. “They have done a lot better than our firm,” he admits dryly.

Not that this is a concern of Fiamma’s now that he is returning to those halcyon days of working manageable hours and the concept of having free time.

He says: “Just when I made the decision [to change jobs] we were reflecting on what our lives would be like without children at home for the first time in 15 years and it is fine.

“Given the way that the rhythm of the vacations work it is actually quite nice and it helps preserve the parent’s relationship with their children rather than destroy it.”

Fiamma clearly loves the UK but he balks at the suggestion that he is an “Anglophile”.

“I wouldn’t have stayed here for this amount of time if I was not happy in this country. But Anglophile is a tough word. I am an American and I will always be an American.”
Stephen Fiamma
Managing partner, soon to be tax partner
Jones Day Reavis & Pogue, moving to Allen & Overy