Angel rematerialises in SJ Berwin non-exec role

After 10 years of running one of the world’s largest law firms, many people would take the chance to cut back on their workload. But not Tony Angel.

Tony Angel
Tony Angel

The former Linklaters managing partner recently agreed to take on a non-­executive directorship at SJ Berwin as part of what he hopes will become a portfolio of similar positions.

Angel will continue to operate as chief executive at health technology start-up Vantage Diagnostics, a role that will still take up the majority of his time, but he has revealed that the SJ Berwin job is one of a ­number of non-exec positions he is likely to take on.

“I’d like to do something in the not-for-profit sector and take a non-exec ­position in financial services too,” he tells The Lawyer. But as befits one of the biggest characters in the legal ­landscape for the past 15 years, it is professional ­services that the holds most attraction for him.

“I’ve always had a ­particularly strong interest in the way firms are run,” Angel says. “I’m a great believer in professional ­services firms, and private partnership is a wonderful way of managing them.”

However, when he took on his first major role after 35 years at the magic circle ­powerhouse (nine spent as managing partner) Angel’s destination probably raised a few eyebrows.

Angel joined ratings agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) as executive managing director and Emea chief in 2008, leaving last year ­following the splitting up of the agency’s credit rating and non-credit rating ­businesses in the aftermath of increased regulation of the industry.

“It was an extraordinary time and an absolutely ­fascinating challenge,” he says of his brief career at S&P. “I learnt a great deal there, but when the new ­regulatory regime came
in the role effectively ­disappeared so it was time for me to move on.”

Moving on has allowed Angel to branch out and take up a range of new responsibilities, not least a role as ­visiting professor at the ­Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass ­Business School.

But it is the SJ Berwin role that will make those in the industry sit up and take the keenest interest.

“I think the firm has some really talented people; and,” he admits, “a lot of challenges too.”

In many ways SJ Berwin’s mercurial fortunes have ­mirrored the analysis Angel offers of the legal sector over the past quarter of a century. He characterises the period from the mid-1980s until
the start of the recession as “a golden age”.

“It was a transformational period for law firms, as they expanded at an extraordinary rate,” he says. “But a lot of the challenges facing firms recur, such as how you ­motivate people and how you implement strategy.

“The challenges now are about managing your ­people through what looks like a much tougher period.”

For SJ Berwin that tough period has manifested itself in unsuccessful merger ­discussions with US firm Proskauer Rose, a series of partner exits and, until a slight upturn last year, a ­rapidly falling profit line.

But the ship looks to be steadying following the election of Rob Day as managing partner; and Angel, even if only in an advisory capacity, has the potential to be another calming presence.
“I’m going to be doing a lot of listening, and where I can I’ll try to help,” he says.