Charles Russell: Private life

Charles Russell has never been easy to pigeonhole; new managing partner James Holder on why his firm isn’t just about private clients and cathedral cities

Charles Russell: Private life” />Having a presence in the historical cities of Oxford and Cambridge is not high on the priority list for most firms in the UK. But for Charles Russell, these offices, together with premises in Cheltenham, Geneva, Guildford and London, are crucial.

While many firms in the UK have spent recent years developing heavy-lifting practice areas such as corporate, finance and real estate, Charles Russell has focused on developing its private client practice and boasts success where others have turned their backs.

The firm’s new managing partner James Holder, who took over from Charles Russell veteran Grant Howell on 1 May, is clear that the firm will continue to put emphasis on the high-wealth sector.

“We don’t want to abandon our private client practice like other firms because it’s very lucrative for us. We target the high-end, high-wealth sector and this is why we have offices in these locations,” Holder says.

Holder’s predecessor Howell, who has now returned to the family practice team after eight years at the helm, helps to shed some light on what some might view as unusual location choices.

“Cheltenham, for example, is historical,” he says. “We had an office in Cirencester 27 years ago that moved 25 years ago to Cheltenham. Guildford is slightly different because [in 1987] we had to decide whether the branch was worth carrying on and were approached [about a merger] by Williams & James, who wanted to expand. This has proved to be very successful.”

The firm’s launch in Oxford in September 2006 (The Lawyer, 15 June 2006) similarly reflects the firm’s opportunistic nature when opening offices. The office, which focuses on IT, bioscience, publishing and higher education, is headed by former partner Peter Elliott. Elliott left the firm in 1987 to work in-house, but returned to Charles Russell in 2004 to launch the Oxford practice.

Holder explains: “Elliott moved in-house and then proposed we set up in Oxford focusing on these areas that would be very lucrative for us. Oxford provided the right kind of demand in these practice areas. We trusted his judgement and it’s been worthwhile.”

Charles Russell’s approach to expansion is matched by its approach to developing client relationships, which has seen the firm’s client list expand to include high-profile clients such as the Football Association (FA).

Two months ago (2 April), The Lawyer reported the firm’s big win for the FA in the Court of Appeal against footballer Wayne Rooney’s agent Paul Stretford. The ruling was well publicised because of its impact on particular rules in the FA’s rulebook relating to disciplinary procedures.

Holder says: “We’ve certainly advised on some big cases that have been in the public spotlight and it can be very exciting. Our emphasis on sport has led to some interesting cases and strong clients for the future.”

Howell adds: “We have a very good reputation in the private client sector and have had some great success stories. It does feel strange to open up a national newspaper and see something that you’ve been advising on being reported on.”

But the firm has also had its fair share of criticism and bad press in the past, often due to its well-established reputation of having aggressive litigation partners.

Charles Russell’s high-profile involvement in the variant CJD compensation trust created a stir when the firm was slammed for misleading comments, included in a letter sent to victims of the human form of mad cow disease in 2002.

While the firm has been knocked for its excessive perserverance in high-profile litigation cases, it has succeeded in keeping a strong private client team while still pushing forward the corporate practice, which was headed by Holder from 1997 until 2000.

“Our corporate commercial practice has done well for some time now,” says Holder. “It accounts for 25 per cent in turnover and we see it growing and strengthening in the future.”

Dispute resolution accounts for an equal share at 25 per cent of turnover, while private client accounts for slightly less, at 19 per cent.

In fact, 2005-06 was a lucrative year for Charles Russell, with growth in revenue accelerating by 16 per cent to reach £58.2m accompanied by a 22 per cent increase in profit per equity partner, which hit £330,000.

Results for the 2006-07 financial year show a 9.4 per cent increase on last year’s turnover, up to £63.2m.

This rapid growth has been attributed to the success of both the Cheltenham office, which saw a 30 per cent increase in turnover in 2005-06, and the firm’s established finance relationships with institutions such as Cazenove and Schroders. Last year the finance practice accounted for £7m of revenue for the same period.

“When people ask, ‘which firms are your rivals?’, I find it very hard to answer. We have a unique set-up and other firms tend to have strengths in very different areas,” says Holder. “[As managing partner] I want to expand the firm, but not lose the close-knit and relaxed culture we’ve managed to instil. It’ll be strange not taking client calls anymore, but I’m looking forward to management.”

Name: James Holder
Firm: Charles Russell
Title: Managing partner
Firm Turnover: £63.2m
Total number of fee-earners: 338
Key clients : Channel 4, Royal Bank of Scotland, Berkeley Homes, ITN
James Holder ‘s CV


Cambridge University, MA

Work History:

1976-82: Ashurst Morris Crisp, qualified

1978 1983-87: Partner, Knapp Fisher

1987-97: Corporate partner, Charles Russell

1997-2000: Head of corporate finance group

2000-07: Head of corporate/ commercial group

2007: Managing partner