Silicon implant

After a year of being planted in Silicon Valley, Osborne Clarke’s Simon Beswick has turned the firm around. Julia Cahill talks to the Brit abroad

When Osborne Clarke’s Silicon Valley partner looked out of an aeroplane window last week and saw nothing but mist over the Irish Sea, he wondered why on earth he was making the trip back.

The lightly tanned, Ralph Lauren-shirted Simon Beswick is mad about the Californian climate, the outdoor lifestyle and his three daughters’ new passion for playing soccer (apparently ladies football is big in Palo Alto). Word has it he’s also driving a convertible these days. In fact, Osborne Clarke has abandoned the original plan of dragging its head of private equity back to the UK this month in favour of him spending a second year in the States.

“Quite early on I realised that a year wouldn’t be long enough to build relationships,” explains Beswick in his slight Liverpudlian lilt. He would like to stay even longer, but there’s the girls’ education to think about. “My replacements will go out for three to five years. As with everything in life, it’s all about relationships. You can’t keep putting new people on those relationships. You need some stability.”

Beswick had to hand over his UK practice – based on key clients such as 3i, Bowman Capital, Bridgepoint Capital, HSBC PE and Quester – to Bristol partner Alisdair Livingstone when he got his Valley posting. For this all-singing, all-dancing M&A/private equity/ venture capital lawyer, the move was something of a leap of faith. His arrival in Silicon Valley coincided with the first round of lawyer redundancies to hit West Coast US firms as they struggled against the slump. This summer has been no different. So, has Beswick been tempted to turn on his heels and say, ‘let’s try again later?’.

“You’ve got to question whether or not you can achieve greater results by being somewhere else,” he admits. But Beswick is one very enthusiastic ‘scally’. Any doubts about the office cannot have lasted long. “I’m utterly convinced it’s a winner. I believe we can build a stock of next-generation international businesses which will take Osborne Clarke onto another level. I am utterly convinced.”

Osborne Clarke’s American dream has, however, been scaled back since it became the first UK firm to launch in California in October 2000, just before the economy went off the cliff. One of its Cologne lawyers recently finished a stint in Silicon Valley, leaving only Beswick, technology specialist Mark Webber and a trainee in residence, cared for by managing partner Leslie Perrin’s former PA. “For what we’re doing and for the current market conditions, that’s fine,” says Beswick.

There are four key types of work Osborne Clarke is looking to extract from its presence there: guiding younger Californian companies through their first forays into European markets; project managing international M&A when there’s a market for it; advising on international venture capital investment, again when the market comes back from the dead; and winning a share of the day-to-day European work for more established corporations, such as technology licensing or employment share schemes. This last category has been helping to keep the office afloat.

“You have to seek business that is reflective of the market. We’ve been low-key about what we’ve been doing out here because of the market conditions. We haven’t had trophy deals to shout about, but we have been doing a lot of day-to-day work that is around. It’s not newsworthy in its own right, but we’re quite pleased with ourselves,” says Beswick.

Silicon Valley has now brought 80 new US clients through the Osborne Clarke door, around 30 of which are Nasdaq-listed. As a result, the office is on target for a 250 per cent increase in turnover on the past financial year, taking it from £600,000 in fees to a projected £1.6m.

Crucially, that growth will take the office into profit for the first time, leaving Beswick feeling “quietly pleased with life”.

It has also turned the Silicon Valley office into the biggest single user of Osborne Clarke’s European alliance, something that Beswick says he hadn’t quite foreseen. This is one reason for his latest trip back – to attend an international practice meeting in Barcelona.

“I haven’t been involved since I’ve been in Silicon Valley. Now we think we’ve got a lot to add to the party, so I’m helping with the European practice,” he says.

Life, it seems, is an almost constant networking whirl. It’s not at all hard to picture Beswick fitting right into Silicon Valley culture, where CEOs are referred to by their first name. “He’s got just the right personality to fit in here and he’s extremely knowledgeable,” says Richard Horning, a partner at Silicon Valley firm Tomlinson Zisko Morosoli & Maser. “I’m always amazed at how well Osborne Clarke picked the team to send out here, because they are in every business development and marketing venue you can imagine, and there are many of them here in Silicon Valley.
There are always a couple of them handing out business cards, signing up new clients, doing the usual networking things in the Valley. I know they have been very successful in getting assignments from local technology companies.”

Tomlinson Zisko is one of around 10 Californian law firms Osborne Clarke works with. Beswick is reluctant to name them all – he would hate to make it easy for any
competitors as yet unfamiliar with the market.

The Osborne Clarke formula may still be unique – although it now has Clifford Chance for company, following the Brobeck Phleger & Harrison raid – but the competition is very much present. Beswick finds himself constantly following UK lawyers around at the Valley’s networking events, whether from Taylor Wessing, SJ Berwinor Clifford Chance. “They’re out there more frequently than we expected,” says Beswick.

So the challenge is to get the Osborne Clarke message through and show off the advantages of being on the ground.
“Traditionally, Californian corporations tend to think of the magic circle firms in London as being the firms they want to instruct, so it is a case of making them aware of the alternatives and of the upsides to the alternatives, such as our ability to deal with issues in the client’s own time zone and our ability to provide a project managed service across Europe,” he says.

Does he feel he has made an impression in his first year? “These days I go to events and I’m not going up to people all the time. People come up to me. That’s a big transition…You become part of the local marketplace. In Bristol, by comparison to London, it was easy to be a central figure in the marketplace because it’s so small. Silicon Valley has more of a Bristol than a London feel.”
It has also made a big impression on him.

“I always thought I knew my clients’ businesses pretty well and I’m turned on by achieving what they want to achieve business-wise, as opposed to the legal documents I produce. But I’ve realised that American lawyers are closer again to their clients. I am close to the top in terms of being a UK commercial lawyer, but I’m only middling by US standards. They understand their clients’ products much better,” he says.

Beswick will spend a few more days catching up with contacts in the UK, but he is raring to get back to the job. The vision is still to build a European presence in Silicon Valley, bringing German, French and possibly Italian and Dutch lawyers over on a long-term basis.
There is also a balance to be struck, Beswick says, between doing the work on the ground and finding the time to keep up with the networking circuit in order to bring in fresh instructions.

But what will Beswick do next at Osborne Clarke, once his Silicon Valley stint is over? “I knew when I went that I would come back to a new role. Over the next few months I’ll work out what the role will be.” It might not involve quite as much sunshine or soccer, but it’s bound to be an exciting one.
Simon Beswick
Osborne Clarke