Hang the DJ

Who is Kendall? It is one of many questions echoing around the City since DJ Freeman announced that it was about to be reborn as Kendall Freeman, an insurance and litigation practice.

Of course, no one in the insurance and reinsurance market would ask this question. David Kendall, the head of DJ Freeman’s insurance team, is one of the most highly respected practitioners in his field. The Lloyd’s panel arbitrator has made his mark on a number of high-profile cases, including the Bermuda Fire & Marine insolvency, and acts for clients such as Axa, St Paul and Chubb. It is just that he is not the kind of guy to shout about it. In fact, more than anything, he seems profoundly shy.

While grabbing a quick lunch with Kendall and DJ Freeman’s current managing partner Laurence Harris, I ask Kendall how he feels about having his name used for the new firm, and he just looks embarrassed. There is a pause. Then Kendall replies: “I have to say there was some reluctance. I’m not the type who enjoys the public eye.” Then Harris cuts in: “Actually, we made him.”

Gleaning any personal information from Kendall is nigh on impossible: when I ask a little about his background, he offers to send me his CV; when I ask him what he does outside of law, he gives a stock response, listing tennis, woodwork, reading and listening to music. “Any non-public activities really,” he adds.

Anyway, it matters not that Kendall does not like to talk – he’s got Harris to do that for him. A former Tory candidate on two occasions (despite the fact that he is only 37), Harris has never been one to shy away from media attention. “I’d been in politics for much of my teens and that was where my ambitions were,” he says.

Had things been different in the 1997 election, the traditionally Conservative seat of Oxford West and Abingdon would have been his. “It was our great good fortune that the electorate of West Oxford saw the light,” quips Kendall, with typical dry humour.

Kendall and Harris met at DJ Freeman when Kendall joined with a large team from Hedleys, a small City shipping and insurance firm, in 1988. Many of that team still remain, including partners Tim Daniel, Richard Hopley and Jim Innes.

“One of the jokes we had when we were thinking about what to call the new firm was, ‘Why don’t we call it Hedleys?'” says Kendall. Perhaps he would really prefer it. The Thames Link Partnership, deriving from the pair’s train journey to work together, was another suggestion for a new name.

No doubt conspiracy theorists could believe that the pair had been hatching the Kendall Freeman plan for some time. While it is fair to say that the review began last autumn, a final decision on what was to be done with DJ Freeman was not confirmed until a fortnight ago.

What had been agreed sometime earlier, however, was that the property and media groups would be split from the insurance and litigation groups. The divide is a reflection of the difficulty the firm had in managing the sector focus structure introduced 12 years ago. “I think that the market sector strategy that we set out on was a good one then, but with hindsight, what we didn’t do was recognise early enough the lack of synergy,” Harris reflects.

Towards the end, DJ Freeman had largely become three independent firms under one roof. “If profitability is fairly similar that can work,” Harris argues. “But if you get into the position where parts are consistently more profitable than other parts, you then start to get a tension. If you continue to sit on it, you get one of two problems: one is that your star people start leaving because you can’t give them fair profit share; the other problem that you get is rows.”

Harris claims that the situation at DJ Freeman had not yet reached that stage. However, other sources at the firm say such tensions had already arisen, and were responsible not just for the ultimate split, but also for a number of departures that had gone before.

While the media and property groups were talking to Olswang, the Kendall Freeman bunch was looking at the possibility of joining with Clyde & Co, although neither Harris nor Kendall will be drawn on the subject. One source cited the lease obligations on the DJ Freeman properties as the reason that the Clyde & Co talks did not go ahead, but all Harris is prepared to say is that the Kendall Freeman option was the one that the team was eventually unanimous on.

“We had a number of options available to us, and some of those options were very attractive,” says Harris. “But there were a whole variety of things that came together to decide that Kendall Freeman represented an extremely attractive way forward.”

Whatever the reasons for opting to go it alone, one of the undeniable benefits is that the DJ Freeman lawyers will be able to do it their way. Gone are the sector groups – the lawyers are now looking to create a structure that avoids being unnecessarily top-heavy in terms of management. After all, there are only going to be 20 partners, all of whom will be full equity.

“Although particular partners will take the lead in certain practice areas, we do see it very much as a collective effort,” says Harris. “We’re not such a big partnership that we need rigid structures – or silos,” he adds in reference to last week’s Leader column in The Lawyer. “No silos, and therefore no silage,” Kendall chips in.

The decision on who will be managing and senior partner has yet to be resolved – at this stage nominations are still open (although were I a gambling woman, I would put money on the fact that the two men sitting in front of me will take the top jobs).

Towards the end of lunch I ask Harris if he feels any remorse for what has happened to DJ Freeman, which at 50 years of age had to call it a day. “Sad? Yes,” he says. “But do I feel remorse? No. The firm was in a position where it had to make a significant strategic change. But what we’ve been able to achieve has safeguarded the jobs of a lot of people, which if things had taken a different turn we wouldn’t have been able to achieve. We haven’t safeguarded everyone’s job, but we’ve done pretty well on that score; and I feel pretty proud that we’ve been able to do that.”

Now, though, his mind is focused on other things – both men have a big job ahead of them if they are to pull this one off. Perhaps, though, they are a good combination to do it.

As I leave the office at 43 Fetter Lane, Harris is letting our photographer know just what he wants for the photograph. Kendall watches on with a wry smile. Sometimes it is the quiet ones that you really have to watch.

David Kendall and Laurence Harris
Head of insurance and managing partner respectively
Kendall Freeman