The Australian rules

Nabarro Nathanson’s new senior partner Simon Johnston’s philosophical attitude may seem like marketing speak, but Dearbail Jordan finds his enthusiasm infectious

Youth, strength and control of your own destiny. No, this is not an advert for a New Age love-in, but rather the sort of attributes that Simon Johnston, recently elected senior partner at Nabarro Nathanson, thinks will lift the firm above the parapet of other City players.

This might seem like gobbledegook, but Johnston is absolutely convinced that it will convince the world that there is more to Nabarros than just property.

“We have got some very strong young partners,” he says. “The average age of our partnership is about 43 which we consider a young partnership. But it is indicative of the fact that we have got a young managing partner, a young senior partner, a young executive, a young head of property finance and a young head of the IT new media group.”

And instead of keeling over from an overdose of what would seem to be full-blown marketing speak, Johnston is so full of energy it is hard not to get carried along with his obvious enthusiasm for his new role.

It is also refreshing that Johnston still relishes a new challenge, even though he has been with Nabarros for more than 14 years, joining after he moved from Australia in 1986.

Johnston qualified in 1984 at small Perth-based firm Robinson Cox, which is now part of Clayton Utz. It was the advent of the America’s Cup in 1987 that served as the catalyst for Johnston’s move to the UK.

Nabarros was acting for long-term client IMG Group, which was the sponsor of the event, and as Robinson Cox was acting for the Royal Perth Yatching Club their paths inevitably crossed.

With the connection firmly in place, Johnston decided to do what every self-respecting Australian does at one time in their life – he decided to go off travelling. “I wanted to come over and get some experience but I also wanted to see the world, live in London for a bit,” he says.

A year after moving to the firm, Johnston did manage to do some travelling. He chuckles: “I travelled round Europe with some friends, which I won’t tell you about.”

On his return, he decided to stay at Nabarros a bit longer. “I went back into the corporate department with the thought process that I would go back [to Australia]. But it was a really busy time in 1986 and 1987, the market was pretty strong, I was getting a lot of really good experience and really enjoyed it.”

He says that one of main attractions of the firm was that it was entrepreneurial and it gave associates a chance to “punch above their weight”. He says: “One of the things that appealed to me was that I was thrown into deals early so I was given responsibility. I was rolled into big meetings well before my time and well before my peers at other firms. I’ve always had that sense that at Nabarros you could always do something with your own career and destiny.”

And when the recession hit in the early 1990s, the option of nipping back to Australia was closed to him for a very good reason. By this time he had met his wife – an event he describes as an “impetus to stay”.

During this period, Johnston briefly moved away from his normal practice of M&A into corporate finance when the firm advised US energy giant Enron on setting up a power station in Teesside, which kept him busy for a couple of years.

Then in 1994, Johnston, with his wife, moved to New York to be the firm’s resident partner in the US when Nabarros had an association with Weil Gotshal & Manges.

When Weil Gotshal set up its own practice in London in 1996 the link-up finally ended and Johnston was posted back to the UK where he helped establish the firm’s North American board.

The firm continued to work with its US clients while maintaining close relationships with a number of US firms. Setting up the board to achieve this showed Nabarros’ cautious attitude to expanding overseas – something it maintains to this day.

Previous presences in Warsaw and Dubai are now no more, although the firm has set up an international network which it claims two German firms have signed up to, although Johnston will not reveal their names.

On the question of international expansion, Johnston’s song remains the same as the senior partner before him, David Bramson. Johnston says: “It is readily apparent to everyone in the market that international is important but I don’t think having international partners is the be-all and end-all. We have been there and done that and seen what it’s like.

“Look at what happened with the US firms coming over here. There was a great rush with a stream of them coming in the door talking to us and talking to about 10 other law firms. Half of them were saying, ‘We don’t know why we’re here but everyone else is coming so we’d better be.'”

He adds: “We know where we are going in the next five years and that is David’s legacy, he set up a strategy for the firm and we know exactly where we want to be.”

Part of Bramson’s legacy, whether it was intended or not, was that the firm’s image as a property player was shaped because of his expertise in this field. Johnston says: “We are not self conscious about it. I think the market perception that we are merely a property firm is slightly off-beam, we have always been more than that. We are very strong in property and we will stay that way.

“The great thing is that when I spoke to the property partners [during the elections] all of them were incredibly supportive about having a non-property senior lawyer as they see that the industry is changing.”

Johnston is clearly looking forward to the prospect of getting his hands dirty.
Simon Johnston
Senior partner
Nabarro Nathanson