The darling bloke of Mays

Nigel Boardman

Nigel Boardman, head of corporate at Slaughter and May, has a CV to die for, earns close to £1 million a year and is a thoroughly nice bloke, writes Fiona Callister

It is very hard to imagine Nigel Boardman, head of corporate at Slaughter and May, blowing his top about anything.

Despite his slightly bloodshot eyes belying the fact that he is tired, Boardman responds to every question with considered calm.

He explains that he has spent most of the weekend on an interminable conference call. But Boardman adds on a positive note that it was the first weekend in about six or seven that he has not had a meeting.

Over the past year, Boardman has acted for Asda in its takeover by US retail giant Wal-Mart and advised Orange on its acquisition by Mannesmann which led to the battle between Vodafone and the German giant.

So how does the man who puts in an estimated 85 hours a week cope with the pressure of heading some of Europe's most important deals?

"I relax pretty easily because I enjoy the work," he says. "It very rarely interferes with my sleep. The only times it does is when you think that you are letting a client down and you can't do the thing that a client needs you to do."

As Boardman sees it, part of client care is acting as counsellor to stressed out executives.

"You are dealing with people and have to help those people. [A deal] can be a long slog for them and they need someone else to take the load off their shoulders."

The media plays a part in imposing these strains, says Boardman.

"If they read in the press day after day that they have done a rubbish job then they get down.

"I think the media attention can be distracting for a deal. It can give people the wrong drivers when doing a deal."

He says that if parties doing a deal have one eye on what the headlines will be, it can adversely affect the outcome of a transaction.

In explanation, he says that sometimes clients are willing to go all out to win a point that is not central to a deal because they can envisage the headlines.

Of course Mannesmann's take-over of Orange, which in turn led to the Vodafone hostile bid for the merged company, was one such deal that commanded the headlines for weeks.

Was there any sense of disappointment that his client got swallowed up twice and may yet have to be spat out by Vodafone?

Boardman is philosophical. "There can be disappointment where you think that something that you have worked for turns out not to have been successful for the company. But we think that we haven't yet finished the story with Orange. There's more to come."

Meeting Boardman, you can see how someone might offload the weight of the world in his office.

Despite being undoubtedly one of the world's leading corporate lawyers – a suggestion that he greets with a slight shrug of his shoulders and a non-committal smile – he seems guileless and approachable.

A few weeks previously, I met him for the first time at a very informal darts match where he had assembled a group of assorted seniorities from Slaughters.

For those in the pub who had barely qualified, it must have been like a night out with the headmaster. Boardman was treated with wide-eyed respect and a touch of reverence.

Juniors started off standing up straight and listening intently to him, sipping their drinks. But as the night wore on, the brave attempted a few jokes then relaxed visibly as Boardman laughed with them.

None of the jokes of course were directed at him – that would have been a step too far.

Boardman could have come out of such a situation like a trendy vicar trying to look cool with the kids, but he didn't. The fact is, and it makes this profile difficult to write, Boardman is just a very nice bloke.

Which is frustrating because he has the sort of personal CV that, without knowing him, would make you want to hate him.

His father is now the Right Honourable Lord Boardman but served as both minister for industry and then chief secretary of the Treasury in the Heath government.

He was also chairman of NatWest bank. So did Boardman get his ambition from his father?

"My father was a successful man so I would have had some of that drive. But my brother is a farmer and my sister is a housewife, so there is a variety in our mentalities.

"But it wasn't daunting having such a successful father, it was interesting."

To cap it all, Boardman has a happy home life with six children, none of whom show an inclination to follow their father into law. With four teenage daughters, surely his calm demeanour must at least ripple. Apparently not – Boardman claims that he takes his negotiating skills home with him and comes to a settlement.

Boardman flirted briefly with banking himself, leaving Slaughter and May for a year early in his career to join Kleinwort Benson.

"I began to think that I did not understand why transactions occurred and that all I was doing was implementing what other people had decided," he says.

"I decided that I would be part of shaping a transaction if I joined a bank. When I went to the merchant bank I discovered that as a junior I didn't do the deals anyway."

While he was there he worked alongside David Clementi, who is now deputy governor of the Bank of England.

"It was a very rewarding time and I found a tremendous increase in my learning curve and an awareness of what was going on. Before joining them I regarded knowing the law as enough. There I was introduced to aspects of client care such as ringing them up to check how they were doing with their side of the transaction."

Boardman came to the law after doing a history degree and fell in love with the subject.

He says: "I remember someone in my first lesson describing the difference between a contract and a non-binding promise and I thought how clever it was.

"I was thrilled by law as a technical subject, which I didn't think it was, so that came as a pleasant surprise."

Boardman was advised at Ampleforth, where he was schooled, that he should go into law after reading another subject. While training, he asked around as to the best firm to join and the name Slaughter and May was mentioned.

"I applied and only went to the one interview," he says – a story that would make many law graduates now feel slightly green around the gills.

"As a trainee I was in the property department and just did lease renewals and learned the office systems such as how to work the photocopier.

"I also learnt that you had to get up each morning at the same time which came as an awful shock," he says, smiling.

Since then his love affair with law has continued and Boardman professes never, since his brief dalliance with banking, to have been tempted by another career at a different firm or in-house.

He was originally better known, however, as a banking lawyer, but says that his fascination with law does not stretch outside the business arena.

"I don't like tax law as it is too dry," he says. "And criminal and family law don't interest me – I'm not interested in areas that revolve around personalities.

"I like the variety of [corporate law]. If you become a client then you do one or two deals a year probably at most," he explains.

"As a solicitor in private practice you can do around 30 to 50 deals in a year."

He adds: "Slaughter and May gives me all the satisfaction I want from a job with a high quality and demanding workload. I get the high quality transactions and the freedom to do them in the way that I want.

"Occasionally I used to get approached by other firms but I never found anyone who interested me."

So what makes a good corporate lawyer and who does Boardman rate?

Geoffrey Green, senior partner at Ashurst Morris Crisp, David Cheyne, corporate partner at Linklaters & Alliance, and Robert Sutton, senior partner at Macfarlanes all feature on his list.

"They are people who get jobs done and are easy to work with but are both able and refreshing. I enjoy meeting with them whether they are on my side or the other side."

With the interview drawing to a close, Boardman still seems too good to be true, although he does admit that his golf needs some work.

But before he can be fully enrolled in the canons of virtue, there remains the sixty-four thousand dollar question, would the man who is estimated to earn close onto £1m a year still do the job if it paid £20,000?

"Yes, I would. Money isn't the driver for doing the job," he says without hesitation. He then pauses and adds: "Depending on the needs of my family."