Roger Parker seems to be somewhat distracted. Obviously his new position as managing partner of Richards Butler is using up all of his concentration.
Parker constantly stops to remind himself what the question was. When asked where he feels his role lies, he answers by giving three key points, which would have worked if he had not lost count after number two.
Parker is seemingly unused to interviews and it is obvious that his new task of being the mouthpiece for the firm is not one that he takes lightly. He errs on the side of caution, and when he does get into his stride, it is more of a tiptoe around the mental minefield that he clearly believes an interview to be.
The more cynical observer might draw their own conclusions from Parker’s prudence. News came out just before The Lawyer went to press on Friday 17 November via a terse press statement that chief executive Chris Schulten had resigned and Parker was to head the firm. Parker takes over at the beginning of December and says that it was Schulten’s decision to leave. He adds that the departure is “entirely amicable”, but not even Schulten knows where he is heading when he leaves the firm at the end of this year.
Parker was appointed directly by the board with no partnership vote, which is unusual for a law firm. He says: “The basic position is that we have centralised a lot more executive ability during the past few years and the board now has the constitutional power to appoint the managing partner or chief executive, although there are safeguards to enable the equity partners to object.”
So why the switch back to a managing partner after being run for five years by accountant Schulten?
“The requirements of the firm between 1993 and 1995, when Chris was finance director and then chief executive, were very different to now,” Parker says. “Certainly if you take 1993, which was the depths of recession, we needed to take a different operational approach to costs and financial matters. We now have those operational systems in place, but at that time Chris was the natural person to take over.”
Parker has taken the job because he believes he is a better manager than lawyer. He has been the manager of the disputes group for more than three years and was involved in management issues before that. “A managing partner has to have proven people skills, be able to get the best out of people he works with and have a proven management capability that we can move out across the firm,” he says. “A lot of large service providers are not as efficient as they could be because of the clash between getting as much as possible from people without creating a sweatshop environment. I would not do the job unless I believed I had the capability to do it.”
Whether Parker has the right skills remains to be seen, but he has certainly been paying attention in media relations training. While perfectly pleasant, he talks in brushstrokes of the Rolf Harris variety and in the relentlessly upbeat style taught to lawyers behind closed doors by media relations consultants.
Anyway, back to those three issues that Parker believes need to be addressed during his three-year tenure. He says that to get his message across, it is important to present them in the right order. So here they are, in the right order.
The first is “to continue our successful drive into corporate finance. At certain points in its history, the department has been highly ranked in the City. We will re-establish that reputation and commit a sizable resource to corporate finance.”
Parker is realistic enough not to claim any ambitions for magic circle turf, but he points out that corporate finance is a wide arena and that Richards Butler is beginning to find areas in which it can really compete.
“We have quality people here and our deal record for the past couple of years has been great. We have to concentrate on keeping our key teams together and keeping key people here, building on that base organically and non-organically,” he says. “We have sufficient resources and capabilities to be closer to the top.” He intends to sniff out suitable teams within the corporate finance arena to bring on board.
The second point is to strengthen core areas, such as the shipping and transport sector – to which Parker says the firm has total commitment – media and rights work and dispute resolution.
Finally, remembering the need for a third point, Parker says he wants to “integrate totally our overseas network of offices and contacts”. He is keen to stress how strong his firm’s international coverage is compared to that of other firms.
Richards Butler started its international spread 50 years ago, long before Clifford Chance was even born. In purely financial terms, the overseas offices bring in around 65 per cent of the London office’s revenue.
And he remains to be impressed by some of the networks being set up by competitors. “The issue for a lot of firms’ networks is whether they are properly resourced.”
Parker says that he wants to learn from the Hong Kong office, which is probably the most successful Anglo-Saxon presence in the former colony. There are no plans to change the office’s current status as a separate profit centre, but he says: “We do intend to develop our senior and management links [with Hong Kong] to make sure that we can maximise opportunities that are there for both offices.”
And what of the still potentially sensitive issue of finding another merger partner? It is less than two years since the much talked about three-way merger between Theodore Goddard, Denton Hall and Richards Butler collapsed.
Parker does not even flinch. “The thing to remember is that merger is not a strategy, its an opportunity. We are regularly approached and have been for a number of years, as every other firm is, but we can achieve an enormous amount independently.”
And with that, he is off to catch the Eurostar to visit the Paris office where he will share his vision for the future.