Leslie Perrin is in an unusually subdued mood. Not in a downbeat way, but I am so used to seeing the managing partner of Osborne Clarke flinging people around the dancefloor at awards ceremonies, he looks like a different person when sitting in an armchair sipping tea.
However, the setting, The Reform Club, is absolutely spot on. Ostensibly very proper and traditional, but with a wild dash of the theatrical right the way through the middle, much like Perrin’s unique combination of lawyer and former actor. Unfortunately, on the day we visit, the smoke-filled rooms of gossiping politicians are nowhere to be seen and the famous library is occupied by an elderly pair who look like they have not moved since the early 1950s.
Perrin is there because the firm is a member and he has been enjoying a long lunch with Silicon Valley partner Richard Smerdon, who is retiring. This comes as a bit of surprise as I had previously been told that Perrin had to put the meeting back an hour as he would be dashing back from seeing a client. Presumably the client cancelled and Smerdon flew in specially. Alternatively, Perrin has a strangely warped view of hacks, believing us all to be Calvinists who frown upon the concept of finishing lunch at 4pm. However, Perrin’s long lunch does not appear to be of the old-style hack variety – otherwise I guess I might have ended up being flung around The Reform Club in an impromptu jive – and he looks more like he wants an afternoon nap at the moment.
Perrin is very pleased with himself and his firm for recently being named in The Sunday Times‘ top 100 nice places to work, making its debut appearance in 56th place.
“What we now say to people when they join us in Bristol, is that their families will have a superb quality of life,” laughs Perrin, before hastily continuing, “We spent a lot of time trying to avoid being sweatshops.” Switching to another metaphor, he explains that he wants the firm to feel like a rowing eight rather than a slaveship. “Only volunteers go into a rowing eight,” he adds.
But recently there has been a slight cloud over the sunshine firm in the form of rumours of tension between the Bristol and London offices. I am surprised to find out that the offices are about the same size, with 45 partners in each, yet the firm is still thought of as a Bristol firm with a London presence and this, allegedly, is the source of the tension. It’s the usual quibble – Bristol gets the power while London makes the money. Perrin says that he does not know which office is the more profitable and says it is entirely feasible that the London office will overtake the Bristol home in the near future.
Perrin first says that he genuinely doesn’t know where the rumours of disquiet have come from, but then adds that one or two of the younger partners in London who have had trouble building a practice may have started the whinge.
Several times during the chat, he remarks upon how cohesive the partnership is, with partners zipping back and forth between Bristol and London. And, of course, the Thames Valley office in between – why is Reading the great unspoken when it comes to law firms? Are they ashamed of the town?
The other Valley that Osborne Clarke inhabits is the Silicon one, having opened an office there just before the “economy went off the cliff” – exactly as it did in Germany, Perrin admits.
Simon Beswick, the partner in charge of the office, has opted to live in Palo Alto rather than San Francisco and is having to come to terms with that most un-English of attitudes – enthusiasm.
“The community there is engaged in a way that British people find alien,” says Perrin. “You will get a call from the school saying, ‘You haven’t volunteered for anything this week.’ And they ask, ‘What are you doing for the Valley?'” Which sounds about as terrifying as people talking to you on the Tube, but fortunately, Osborne Clarke claims a gold star for introducing 3i to people out there and bringing over a delegation of MPs and business people. Perrin also tries to claim credit for popularising the concept of private equity in Germany, where he says the concept of an owner selling a business to its management was once so shameful that the owner would have had to leave the neighbourhood.
When it comes to schmoozing duty, Perrin must be a godsend, because he is certainly a man who knows how to party. He is not averse to press coverage either – readers may remember a series of columns he wrote for The Lawyer a couple of years ago. The downside of this is that when you think Osborne Clarke, you only ever think of Perrin.
So how do his fellow partners cope with having a show-off in charge of the firm? “I think my profile has been good for the firm, but nobody is fooled, least of all me and my partners. Our real profile is down to our clients and what we do one-on-one with them.”
If his partners do wince when Perrin opens his throttle and goes for the full showman routine, then they have only themselves to blame. After all, they did know that he used to be an actor, and how many actors do you know who are the shy, retiring type?
So does he ever pine for the smell of greasepaint? “I don’t miss it, but I don’t regret having done it either,” muses Perrin, who also shudders while recalling going to see his friend play Simba in the stage version of The Lion King. “He has done it for two and a half years and he suffers awful, awful indignities at the hands of children.”
Perrin’s own performances include a small part in the horror movie The Wicker Man, which he describes as “one of the greatest bad movies of all time”, and appearing in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat with Alan Rickman. The latter I just can’t imagine – not so much Perrin having to sing, dance and look cheerful, but the idea of Rickman and his supercilious, but strangely attractive, sneer doing Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Then came marriage and the big three-oh and Perrin decided that acting was not the best way to put food on the table. A friend was working on the Jeremy Thorpe conspiracy to murder case at Kingsley Napley and Perrin thought that being a lawyer looked quite good. “I was very worried when I decided to give up acting because the only thing that I had to sell was me and showing off – I didn’t have any skills,” admits Perrin. But he maintains that he couldn’t have had a better preparation for working in a career in communication. He says that is the main function in his job – Perrin is very proud of holding monthly meetings in which he meets every fee-earner. Although he still has not managed to persuade one secretary in Germany to call him by his first name.
Arguably, the bar might have been a more logical move for an actor, but Perrin says that for him the bar held the same disadvantages as being an actor. “The aspects of being an actor that I didn’t like were being self employed and the barrack room humour and being only as good as the last job you did. The green room and the robing room are very similar places, full of competitive and destructive egos.”
But of course Osborne Clarke, with its partnership love-in, could not be more different.