Married to the job

Virginia Glastonbury is a firm woman. As Chris Fogarty finds, Denton Hall is less of a job and more of a working love affair for one of the City’s handful of female managing partners. But can she turn her passion into profit?

It is a telling moment when Virginia Glastonbury, Denton Hall’s newly elected London managing partner, talks about her path into the legal profession. “I didn’t come from a firm of solicitors,” she says. What she meant to say was a “family of solicitors”.

But it is all too easy to picture Glastonbury being left, as a baby, in a reed briefcase on the steps of Dentons’ Chancery Lane office, only to be taken in by the partners, raised among the wolves of the City, until finally she gains their respect and leads the pack. For her relationship with Dentons teeters on obsession. If a grenade was lobbed into Dentons’ boardroom tomorrow, Glastonbury would be the first to dive on it.

She defends the firm against criticism as someone would their lover. And Glastonbury talks about the practice as if it were a living, breathing personality.

Near the end of the interview, when it is suggested she has Dentons pumping through her veins, she laughs and says: “A partner was just saying that the other day.”

Perhaps worried about the impression she is giving, Glastonbury adds: “Yes, Dentons is in my blood, but I do recognise the need for balance. And I do have a life outside.”

She also has a passion for fast cars and is restoring a 1962 Porsche with her civil engineering husband Richard.

Then there is her cat, Daisy. As it is male, she worries that this information is a little too Freudian to be passed on. “I am occasionally normal,” she says with a laugh.

However this is a lawyer who unashamedly loves her work and is passionate about her firm.

Driving in from her Kent home in a late model dark-blue Porsche, she arrives at work by 7.30am and, “on a good day”, will leave by 8pm. She usually works Sundays but, by way of mitigation, takes Saturdays off.

Her coalface work ethic was forged early on in her career. After reading history at Oxford University, Glastonbury initially studied law part-time through a correspondence course. To finance her studies, she worked in a wine bar, and says it was excellent training in dealing with troublesome clients.

Glastonbury joined Dentons as an articled clerk in 1980 – when the firm had 24 partners and a Hong Kong office. She became a partner in 1988. Last week, after a two-horse race against banking partner Steven Goodman, she was elected London managing partner of a firm with 96 partners and 10 international offices.

Control of the firm will be split between herself, chairman James Dallas and newly elected international managing partner David Moroney.

The three of them will be situated “in what is rather horribly described as a management suite”.

Given that in the past three years Dentons has been involved in failed tripartite talks with Cameron Markby Hewitt and McKenna & Co, and then Theodore Goddard and Richards Butler, it is ironic the firm is now toying with a three-way management structure. But Glastonbury insists it can work: “We’re going to be meeting the whole time and talking the whole time.”

Yet, as only the third woman to take such a senior managing role in a top 30 firm (after Lovell White Durrant’s Lesley MacDonagh and Nabarro Nathanson’s Nicole Paradise), Glastonbury’s performance will be more closely scrutinised than that of her two male colleagues.

But anyone who falls into the trap of stereotyping Glastonbury as being particularly sympathetic to the plight of women in the legal profession is in for a rude shock. On the issue of women fitting their careers around their family, she says: “Of course, clients don’t slot their work into Monday to Thursday when you will be there. You just have to accept that you have to be available.

“The needs of the business, and by that I mean the needs of the client, have to come first.”

This uncompromising approach does not appear to put off potential female recruits. Dentons is proud of the fact that 27 of its 96 partners are women and that women outnumber male assistant solicitors by 142 to 138.

Glastonbury is refreshingly honest. She does not couch her talents in false modesty and admits she is personally ambitious, as well as being ambitious for the firm.

“I do a job that I love. I’m with a firm that has been everything I want it to be and for which I have great further ambitions. For me, it has worked.”

But, be it her banking background or fervour for the firm, she can occasionally slip into corporate speak. Asked how she intends to help the firm to expand, she says: “I see the key role of the London managing partner as being very much the implementation of firm strategy.

“You can have structure, you can have strategy, you can have organisation, but without implementation the danger is we don’t follow through what we’re trying to achieve.”

And so on for another minute.

Yet almost in the next breath Glastonbury speaks eloquently and concisely about the threats to Dentons’ business, the legal market and her commitment to building a larger firm. A large part of this is keeping existing clients happy. She says they are becoming more demanding, and rightly so.

Other plans include offering a seamless global service and undertaking a review of support costs. She also wants to build on the firm’s reputation, and appears keen to bolster its public profile.

PricewaterhouseCoopers project finance team assistant director Andy Miller, who has worked alongside Glastonbury, describes her as “professionally head and shoulders above the other lawyers”.

He says she has the ability to sort out problems and push through deals – something many clients are crying out for.

The other description of Glastonbury is a “people person” – a phrase that makes her raise her eyes to the roof.

Perhaps its because she’s unlikely to be the kind of “chap” who will know your golfing handicap.

Glastonbury says she is not a “ranter or a raver”, and prefers to convince staff rather than cajole them. However, she makes it clear she will be touring the firm’s offices to monitor what her lawyers are doing and see how things could be improved.

She also faces a series of wider strategic challenges. A merger is still on the table. “Merger is rather like marriage,” she says, “it has to be the right one to do.”

The firm is yet to successfully break into the US market – The Lawyer revealed the closure of its New York office three weeks ago – and its strong energy, media and property teams are vulnerable to head-hunters if profits dip or direction is lost.

But, in Glastonbury, Dentons may have found a leader who is as clever as she is committed. “I will have failed as managing partner if the firm doesn’t grow,” she declares.

It is an unusually bold statement for a managing partner and one that could return to haunt her.

Whenever you interview a newly promoted lawyer, they all give you a standard line about getting their feet under the desk and tell you to come back and see them in a year’s time.

It may be a measure of Glastonbury’s ambition and drive that she asked us to come back in six months.
Virginia Glastonbury
Manging partner
Denton Hall