Linklaters’ strong-arm

John-Paul Flintoff discovers that, to get his own way, Linklaters & Alliance chief executive Terence Kyle pulls no punches.

Terence Kyle stares sullenly at the table, red-faced and grinding his teeth. The chief executive of Linklaters & Alliance does not like answering personal questions, which is rather awkward as he has agreed to talk to The Lawyer about his role at the helm of a firm that has recently transformed into one of the most admired in Europe.

Ask about the firm and he talks to you with considerable enthusiasm. But ask about him and Kyle, 52, deflects the question with an opaque statement of the obvious.

It goes something like this.

Why did you become a lawyer?

Kyle says: “I went into law because I decided that I was interested in the law.” Ah.

When it comes to his background, all he is prepared to say is that his father was a “banking official”.

I ask if he went to university in his native Northern Ireland.

“No,” he snaps. “I went to Christ’s, Cambridge. I was at school in Belfast. You shouldn’t make assumptions about people.”

As responses go, it seems uncommonly prickly. What is wrong with going to university in Belfast?

But sharp-tongued corrections are entirely characteristic. At a recent partners’ meeting, Kyle pointed at a partner who had spoken and reportedly snarled: “That’s a fucking unhelpful comment.”

An old friend from Cambridge, Roger Birkby, now managing partner at Norton Rose, says Kyle “always was a blunt chap [with] a formidable reputation for telling people when they’re out of line”.

He can be “overly blunt”, agrees one senior banking client – even “fucking rude”.

Yet this banker esteems Kyle: “He has a good sense of humour, can take a joke himself, and take the piss out of others. I have been in confrontations with him; but you can have a laugh about things afterwards. He does listen. [But] I wouldn’t call him Terry, not unless I wanted to be hit.”

You think he is joking? In 1994, at a Linklaters & Paines client party at the Savoy, Kyle was involved in an extraordinary confrontation with one of his most valuable clients, Neil Stocks, senior lawyer at Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC, now UBS). Stocks had earlier made certain negative remarks, “Terence stalked up to me like some kind of prop-forward”, recalls Stocks. An SBC colleague heightened the drama by saying “come on, Terence, take a swing at him”. Stopping just short of that, Kyle used some particularly colourful language – in front of a room full of clients.

But Stocks, no softy himself, has remained loyal to Linklaters. “I don’t know what happened,” Stocks says. “In many ways, Terence is my sort of bloke.”

So much for Kyle, what about his firm? Linklaters has reinvented itself by effectively merging at the end of last year, with four firms previously affiliated through the continental European Alliance group.

The new organisation is vast, with offices in 28 financial centres round the world, 1,900 lawyers and a combined fee income estimated at many hundreds of millions of pounds.

It was not a true merger because the firms – from Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden – will only pool a proportion of their revenue, although this is set to increase steadily over time.

At a stroke, Linklaters has leapfrogged over Allen & Overy and Freshfields, and, in Europe at least, caught up with Clifford Chance.

Linklaters’ clients seem pleased. One argues that, although Clifford Chance “probably has a better grip of its network”, Linklaters “has better partners, both in London and overseas”.

The managing partner of a major rival in the City concedes: “It’s too early to say I’m impressed by Linklaters & Alliance. But I am impressed with the concept.”

Much of the credit must go to Kyle. In preliminary discussions with the Alliance firms, says Pierre Nijnens, former managing partner of Dutch firm De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, “Terence was quite outspoken. He said the Alliance firms were perceived as a loose group. I didn’t like to hear that at the time, but I thought he was right.”

Others in the Alliance felt differently. Paris-based Jeantet & Associes opted out of Kyle’s plans, as did Madrid’s Uria & Menendez. Which is why some outsiders have nit-picked.

Kyle is visibly irked by press criticism and is desperate to explain how Linklaters has tackled its perceived weaknesses. In Paris, he says, by way of example, the firm has recruited a leading mergers and acquisitions team from Gide Loyrette Nouel. In The Netherlands, Linklaters has taken on several tax specialists, while in Madrid a new office opened this month, staffed by three English lawyers.

Kyle is fanatical about his firm – you would not be surprised to find “Linklaters” tattooed on his chest. One of his partners offers an analogy: “If Terence was a soldier, he would march directly towards the enemy carrying the flag, and expect you to be right behind him. And you would be.”

Stephen Edlmann, head of international finance and capital markets, confirms that Kyle leads by example. “He would do [work] in the middle of the night that I should have been doing,” he says. “He would say: ‘let’s do this together’.”

Kyle has also been known to take part in charitable events. In Christmas 1996, he delivered post around the firm to raise money for the charity Crisis.

But, in accepting nothing short of the best, he can be a hard taskmaster. “I suppose I am,” he says. “I don’t expect people to go through the motions; I expect them to put in an effort. If you are going to be part of an organisation, you need to participate fully in what the organisation does. I certainly don’t believe you should ever consciously seek to be third or fourth in any activity. You should always seek to be the top.”

Kyle joined Linklaters & Paines straight from university in 1970. At the time, the firm employed just 250 people, the only other firm worth working for was Slaughter and May, and older figures in the City still wore bowler hats.

He qualified in 1972, becoming a partner in 1979. In the early 1980s, he was one of four partners involved in the launch of the international finance practice. “International capital markets were just taking off,” he recalls. “We were the first to set up a specialist operation. The people who worked in that group did nothing but capital markets work.”

With the backing of leading investment banks such as Bankers Trust, Credit Suisse First Boston, Nomura, Paribas and Swiss Bank Corporation, Linklaters achieved market dominance. “Eventually, Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance copied the approach,” says Kyle, who led the group from 1989 to 1995. “But by that time I don’t think they had a choice.”

And in 1995 he was appointed managing partner.

It might be tempting to assume Kyle is a bruising executor of other people’s bright ideas, but Edlmann insists this is not the case. “If he is sure he is right, and has done the research and thought about something, he has the nerve to bash on. When we started practising US law, people did worry about that, but within a year the ones who’d had concerns said ‘thank goodness you had the courage of your convictions’.”

Under Kyle’s leadership, Linklaters has changed considerably. As well as the merger and the creation of a US law practice, there was the move to new premises, which brought all London-based staff under one roof for the first time in years.

Kyle was instrumental in moves to modernise the firm’s image and, on the advice of Saatchi & Saatchi, dropped “& Paines” from the firm’s logo after 150 years.

And it was Kyle who, as managing partner, introduced flexitime for partners as well as staff (Linklaters was first of the Big Five to offer this).

Kyle was closely involved in a less satisfactory experience – losing a partner to a rival firm. He had recruited Sean Pierce from Clifford Chance and was said to be deeply disappointed when he left soon after for Weil Gotshal & Manges. And last week, leading competition lawyer Chris Bright bailed out of the firm to become managing partner of Clifford Chance’s European competition practice – the first sign that the Alliance agreement has not pleased everyone.

Kyle though has little time for those not with the game plan.

“All lawyers have a terrible lack of self belief – they’re not confident that the work will come to them.”

After pep talks from Kyle, Linklaters’ diffident lawyers got over this. “I think people realised that sitting at home wringing your hands and saying, ‘isn’t the competition awful [in terms of being strong]’, was no good.”

Having impressed as managing partner, Kyle was the obvious choice to be chief executive of Linklaters & Alliance. “He was clearly the person everyone wanted,” confirms Edlmann. Again, clients agree. “It says something admirable about Linklaters that they put him in that job,” says one banker. “Some would argue that you don’t want such a forceful personality in charge, but I disagree. You need someone like Terence to keep things moving forwards.
Terence Kyle
Chief executive
Linklaters & Alliance