Young gun

Lovells’ new senior partner John Young may have been the outside bet, but after his surprise election win he means business.

Ever since his university days, the gangling new senior partner of Lovells has been likened to John Cleese. However, on meeting him, it is immediately apparent that John Young is not Cleese’s doppelgänger at all: he is Basil Fawlty incarnate, clipped moustache and all.

It is not that Young is a bounding anti-German cretin, it is more that his mannerisms are exactly those of the Fawlty Towers proprietor. But unlike Torquay’s finest, Lovells’ new senior partner is also an expert mountaineer. Those expansive physical gestures probably look fine in the great outdoors. In a confined space, though, they are a little offputting.

At the Lovells partnership conference just over a week ago, deputy senior partner Walter Klosterfelde took the three candidates aside after the votes were counted. Even at that stage, who would have thought that a contest between the incumbent senior partner Andrew Walker, head of corporate Hugh Nineham and dark horse Young would go the latter’s way?

Well, Young for one – or so he claims. “My immediate reaction was, ‘well, I’ve won after all’, but looking back on it I felt that I had at least even chances,” he claims. He goes on to insist: “I wouldn’t have agreed to stand in the first place if I hadn’t thought I was in with a very good chance.”

The background to Young’s confidence is that he was the last partner to join the election race, and while the other four contenders self-nominated, he did not put his own name forward. “At that stage, I thought that this time around people felt I was too young, so I didn’t go into the self-nomination process,” he reveals. So, like all good politicians, Young can claim that he was pressed into service and bowed down to his peers for the good of the community.

One of the reasons he left it so late was because at one stage he was thinking about the managing partner job. “I’ve had to address that issue in the last few weeks,” he admits. “Partners have undoubtedly seen me as a potential managing partner of the firm as well, which is flattering, and I believe I could do the managing partner job if that was something I’d chosen.” The deciding factor was that, while the managing partner role is a full-time job, as senior partner Young can also keep hold of the reins of his beloved corporate insurance practice.

It is not that difficult to see why Young’s partners voted for the rank outsider. He is eccentric, true, but in a way that fits in very well with Lovells’ image. He is also widely admired as a lawyer. While he has the sort of self-confidence that borders on arrogance, Young is straight as a die in a world of spin.

Obviously the other two candidates also had their weaknesses. Last week the partners debated the relative merits of all three hopefuls while they were out of the room. A fly on the wall would have seen a dramatic turnaround.

In the run-up to the election, partners said they thought the firm’s managing partner, Lesley MacDonagh, was backing the incumbent Walker. According to a source at the partnership conference, “it became apparent very quickly on the day that there was almost no support for Andrew”. During the debate, MacDonagh stood up and instead gave her support to Nineham.

According to the source, it then looked like things would go Nineham’s way. When the partners came to vote secretly, however, they plumped for Young. Ironically, Nineham may have been perceived as just too close to the rest of Lovells’ management. Certainly Young’s election represents a massive anti-management vote.

MacDonagh is almost universally admired and liked at Lovells. Furthermore, she has steered the firm through an incredible period of expansion. But she and Nineham may have suffered a phenomenon well known in US political elections.

In the US, voters often choose a strongly Republican congress if there is a Democratic senate or president, or vice-versa. The theory is that they will balance each other out. Maybe this goes for MacDonagh and Young, who, to put it mildly, are very different characters.

Young himself attributes much of his appeal to the performance of his corporate insurance practice. “The fact that I’ve demonstrated success in my practice I’m sure contributes to people feeling that I have the authority to bring even greater successes across the whole firm,” he concludes.

But why plump for corporate insurance in the first place? It is hardly the glamour end of the profession, after all. How many young lawyers dream of spending their lives with clients who have a reputation for wearing nylon suits and brown shoes?

As with many niche areas, it seems that Young just slipped into it – but he certainly made it his own. Although Herbert Smith, Clifford Chance and Freshfields also have rated practices in the sector, Young’s is the acknowledged market leader.

“Demutualisation as a concept very rapidly evolved at a technical level between 1996 and 1999. During that time I led the three most high-profile deals,” explains Young. He also worked on Equitable, of which he says: “I was personally very proud of that and also frankly utterly drained. I’ve never been nearer to a state of physical and mental collapse than I was then.”

Young relates his glee at having an hour alone with German Düsseldorf corporate insurance partner Christoph Kueppers when the two happily discussed insurance without interference from anybody else. If Lovells were to sell tickets to a gig like that, there would be few takers at the firm. What the partners do understand, though, is that Young has top-level City contacts across banks and financial institutions, is technically brilliant and brings in wedges of cash. Not a bad combination.

Crucially, Young will not give up his day job: he will continue to maintain relationships with key insurance contacts and will do some high-level regulatory work. “That’s my whole approach,” he says. “Andrew became senior partner at a time when the senior partner was much more directly involved in management responsibilities.”

Walker did little fee-earning and, across the City, from Lovells to Clifford Chance, partners are increasingly suspicious of managers who just manage. Top brass needs to prove they can still do the law bit – or at least charm the clients.

Young fits the profile here. He says one of the most important aspects of his job as senior partner will be to represent the firm with clients. Probably some of them will find him unconventional, but his stellar reputation as a lawyer will help him to sell the firm both in the City and worldwide.

When we discuss what else he will do as senior partner, he talks about “binding the partners together”. On the international front, he also discusses the US, which he describes as the “ghost at every feast”. In other words, Lovells faces the same issues as most firms of its size.

Interestingly, though, he explicitly refers to a less pleasant aspect of the job: dealing with underperforming partners. “We’re a lockstep partnership,” says Young. “We have expectations that partners perform to a certain level. There are always going to be issues with partners not coming up to scratch.”

Last year Lovells reintroduced a salaried partnership, partly as a mechanism for dealing with underperforming equity partners, who can now be moved down to a salaried band. Dealing with underperformers will be considerably easier for Young, a major fee-earner and highly respected practitioner, than it was for Walker. But the question is, will he be as tough as Nineham would have been?

Young’s likely plan after his four-year term is to slip back into the corporate insurance practice for his twighlight years. When his term ends, he will be 51 and, he claims, “my outdoor activities mean I want to be retired while my knees are in good working order”. (I think he is talking about mountaineering here.)

While he is in the senior partner post, Young’s relationship with MacDonagh will be fascinating. Some partners at the firm say they do not get along, others go so far as to say there is an active dislike on at least one side. Characterwise, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. “We’re very different, but I’m very flexible,” points out Young. “I don’t see that there’ll be any issues going forward.”

MacDonagh is certainly much better dressed. You never know, she may end up being Sybil to Young’s Basil.
John Young