A sporting life

Northern managing partner and national litigation head for Pinsents Nigel Kissack is certainly not one to refuse a challenge. Matheu Swallow reports

On the face of it, Nigel Kissack is not your typical Pinsent Curtis Biddle man. He was the first member of his family to go to university (Sheffield), his first job was for an industrial cleaning company in Yorkshire, doing the jobs that the unions would not allow their members to do – clearing out acid baths was particularly memorable – and Joan Collins was one of his first clients. On top of which, he drives a Maseratti and is the protégé of Roger Lane-Smith, the senior partner of one of Pinsents’ main rivals, DLA.

“Sixty-plus per cent of the equity partners went to Oxbridge. If that makes me different then I suppose I am, but I don’t see myself as different,” says Kissack.

Looking back on a career that now sees him settled with a dual role as national head of litigation and managing partner of the North, Kissack is certainly his own man.

Kissack comes from a military family. His father was a major in the Royal Engineers, and so Kissack junior consequently spent a fairly nomadic childhood, having lived in 18 different homes by the time he was 18. At the tender age of seven and a half he was packed off to boarding school, an experience he thoroughly enjoyed, instilling in him self-confidence and the belief to act on his own analysis, as well as satisfying his love of sport. Kissack loves sport, any sport – motorcycling, football, rugby, golf. In fact, he loves anything competitive, “even two flies crawling up the wall”.

Given this background, it was perhaps not surprising that he had chosen his future career aged just 14. An aptitude test registered his options as journalist or lawyer, although he also contemplated becoming a policeman. He has never regretted his choice, although after a couple of drinks he does smoke like a journalist.

On completion of his training contract at Foysters, Kissack became the first assistant to be recruited to Lee Lane Smith, the corporate boutique established by Roger Lane-Smith, now senior partner of DLA. These were heady times. On his arrival the firm consisted of just Lane-Smith, Kissack, a conveyancing partner and a trainee. “Roger [Lane-Smith] is an entrepreneurial and charismatic individual and he was growing a business like topsy – doubling in turnover on a six-monthly basis initially and then on an annual basis. The growth was quite tremendous,” says Kissack, who was made a partner within six months and joined the equity before the year was up. That was in October 1980, coincidentally the same time as he married his wife Kathryn – aka Lee Lane Smith’s trainee.

The couple now has two children, Annabel (studying at UCLA) and Richard (on his gap year working on a building site to save for a travelling expedition before heading off to Newcastle University). Kissack is a devoted family man and, despite his responsibilities, ensures that the four of them sit down to tea together every night at their home in York.

The strong family ethic only wears a bit thin when we discuss his recently purchased Maseratti. “It’s a midlife crisis”, he admits. “My only excuse is that, although it’s a two door, we can all fit in, so it’s a family car.” It might have been more believable if he had said it helped him get home in time for tea.

After two more years of consistent growth, Lee Lane Smith saw the opportunity to break into litigation. The only problem was that the firm lacked any senior litigation capability. Kissack left the comfort zone of his corporate practice and promptly took on his next challenge: building a litigation department. He was 25.

“I knew roughly what I was talking about,” he says casually. “I probably relied a bit too much on counsel for the first six months until I learnt the white book off by heart.”

The growth might not have been as exponential as in the first years of Lee Lane Smith, but through a merger or two and Kissack’s ability to pick things up quickly and run with them, the litigation practice developed nicely. In 1992 Kissack, already head of litigation, was elected managing partner of the Manchester office.

He stayed at the firm for another five years, long enough to see through the merger of Alsop Wilkinson, as his firm had then become, with Dibb Lupton Broomhead at the end of 1996. On the day of the merger, Kissack experienced first hand the management zeal of DLA’s self-confessed Northern upstart. “Both firms voted on the same day but at different hotels. When the vote went through, Nigel Knowles came over on a big screen to congratulate everybody and wish the new firm a successful future. That’s effective management,” says Kissack. That is Nigel Knowles, more like.

One thing that Kissack’s early career did give him was a comprehensive induction in the mechanics and politics of law firm rebranding. During his time there, Lee Lane Smith merged with Alsop Stevens to become the snappily-titled Alsop Stevens Bateson & Lane-Smith, then merged again with Wilkinson Kimbers to become Alsop Wilkinson, and finally with Dibb Lupton Broomhead to become Dibb Lupton Alsop (now DLA). Despite this expert knowledge, however, Kissack refuses to be drawn on the expected lifespan of the ‘Biddle’ in Pinsent Curtis Biddle.

A year after the creation of what is now DLA, Kissack was finally lured away. He was not looking for a move, he says, but was ready for a new challenge. But for the timing of the approach, though, it might never have happened. Having already rebuffed several calls from headhunters, Kissack finally relented and met Julian Tonks at Manchester Airport before jetting off on a holiday with his family. Tonks, says Kissack, “sold me a good line”, which the holiday gave him plenty of time to chew over.

“I was very upset at the time Nigel went, but in the end he did the right thing for himself,” says Lane-Smith.

As well as the opportunity for a new challenge, one thing the move did give him was the chance for a break; after working for 17 years straight, his three months of gardening leave were gratefully accepted.

Not that there has been much respite since. He combines running the firm’s litigation practice with being managing partner of the North. Pinsents had a long-stated ambition to launch in Manchester, which Kissack’s arrival was expected to herald. Finally, in January this year, it happened. According to Kissack, the delay was a question of priorities: the new office in Leeds, which required significant investment in time and money in 1999-2000, as did Europe in 2001. But now that it is here, Kissack is pleased with its progress.

“We thought we’d identified a gap in the market where a firm like ours would be able to succeed,” he says. “We believed an alternative [to Addleshaw Booth & Co] in key markets of private equity, plc, banking, litigation and corporate recovery would be welcomed.”

Initial targets were to put a plc team in place, grow the banking team, establish the private equity team, build up litigation and make some money, all of which have been met. The second phase has been to broaden the service offering and, with a series of lateral hires, the office has already added employment and pensions capabilities as well as bolstering the plc practice.

“It could be [a honeymoon period], but that overlooks what we have: North West lawyers with North West relationships, North West histories and a North West office. We haven’t just decamped from Leeds,” says Kissack.

When we met in Manchester, Kissack was a reluctant
interviewee, given that he had no forewarning, and therefore no time, to prepare the corporate line. However, he did not seem to need it and is quick with both the snappy one-liner (“The firm’s new, the people aren’t”) and a determination to spread his praise equally between his three charges, the Leeds and Manchester offices and the litigation practice.

He argues that his litigation practice should feature at around number 13 in The Lawyer 100‘s litigation sector analysis, which gives the department an estimated national turnover in excess of £25m, on par with Simmons & Simmons and above Denton Wilde Sapte. And on Leeds, he says… well, sorry but there just isn’t the space… suffice to say it is performing and performing well.

Kissack has now been at Pinsents for five years and is still happy. So maybe it would be wrong to say he is not a Pinsents man – after all, Alsop Wilkinson had earlier approached Pinsents with similar alliance proposals before the start of negotiations with Dibbs; and Kissack has also now been reunited with a number of his former colleagues from Lee Lane Smith and Alsop Wilkinson.

Pinsents man or not, Kissack’s career has moved from one challenge to the next. So, with the Manchester office now up and running, it is tempting to wonder when the next one might come along. Kissack will not be drawn on his future ambitions, but he is clearly very ambitious. You never know – Tonks just might have picked up his eventual successor at Manchester Airport.
Nigel Kissack
Northern managing partner and national litigation head
Pinsent Curtis Biddle