Privates on parade

Every year the Queen's Honours List includes a handful of lawyers, and this year was no exception. It seems this time around planning was the practice area to be in. Those to get the nod from royalty included Gloria Hedley-Dent, divisional manager of the planning legal group in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and Cambridge University's Professor Malcolm Grant, lately chairman of the Local Government Commission for England. The only private practice planning lawyer to scoop an award was SJ Berwin head of planning and environment Patricia Thomas.

The other City lawyer to pick up an OBE was RadcliffesLeBrasseur partner Michael Nathanson, who heads up the Italian desk of the Westminster firm. His OBE came for his services to Italian-UK relations.

Thomas's and Nathanson's practices are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but they do have one thing in common – an absolute passion for what they do.

Michael Nathanson, RadcliffesLeBrasseur

Michael Nathanson OBE bustles me into a meeting room, and promptly orders us a coffee – in Italian. Radcliffes, known for being a rather formal Westminster firm, is perhaps the last place you would expect to find this extroverted Italian speaker.

“One of my failings is that I've never been able to convince Radcliffes to purchase an espresso machine,” he laughs, when a cup of filter coffee arrives in the room.

He has another failing he informs me of later in the interview. “I'd always planned not to go into law, and I did everything I possibly could not to become a solicitor,” he says. “But I failed miserably, and really have never regretted it.”

Although English born and bred, Nathanson's family involvement with Italy goes back quite a way. The Italians took his father as a prisoner of war (POW) in 1941 in North Africa. “He was shipped across to a war camp south of Naples called Padula, which we thought was a harsh prisoner of war regime,” says Nathanson. “But we visited a couple of years ago to find out it was a 13th century monastery and one of the great artistic treasures of Europe. Trust Dad.”

Two years later the prisoners were put on trains to POW camps in Germany. Nathanson senior, however, escaped in Modena, where he was looked after by the Italians for seven weeks before being smuggled into Switzerland. As a gesture of thanks, he returned to Modena after the war and helped to finance a boys' home. “I visited for the first time when I was three years old, and from three years old it's been a passion,” says Nathanson.

But it is not only a love of Italy that runs in the blood – it is also the law. Nathanson senior was a founding partner of Nabarro Nathanson, although his son never considered working there. “Although I ended up paddling in the same field, I didn't follow in his footsteps,” Nathanson asserts. “There was no reason I should join.”

This point highlights one of the key differences between English and Italian business. “It's interesting because the pressure in English legal firms is for families not to work together,” he says. “When I did articles at Slaughters, the rule was that sons didn't follow fathers. It's a great shame and great weakness of the British system and weakness of British industry that there's no room for the family to work together.”

After becoming a lawyer, Nathanson tried to find ways of making a living that also interested him, and gradually the Italian work began to flow. After running the Italian desk at Penningtons, Nathanson joined Radcliffes in 1995 to set one up there.

He acts for both UK clients investing in Italy and vice versa. Italian clients include Fiat, Banca Carige, the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma and Mondo.

“The strategy [at Radcliffes] is to provide a specialised Italian service; and where there are substantial deals that need to be done we [the Italian group] interface between various departments. Leading the group is a specialised and very pleasurable area of activity.” Plus he gets to spend a good amount of time in the country he loves.

Radcliffes has no particular tie-up or exclusive relationship with any firms in Italy, which Nathanson says is due to the very regional nature of the Italian market. “You wouldn't use a lawyer from Milan in Rome and vice versa,” he says. “The Italian market has been one of venerable legal barons who've had contacts and done work. I can see the Italian legal market will revert back to the Italian firms. It will not necessarily be dominated by Anglo-Saxon firms.”

His involvement in Italian business goes a great deal further than lawyering, however. Five years ago he set up the London office of the British Chamber of Commerce for Italy – a body that was originally set up in 1904 by a shipping gangster and a lawyer.

Nathanson is now the honourary secretary for the chamber in London and administers the secretariat of the British-Italian Parliamentary Group. He also served for many years on the committee of the British-Italian Law Association.

Running the London office, though, is not all work and no play. “I really just put on parties,” Nathanson jokes. More often than not, his 'play' involves a good bottle of Italian wine and, on occasion, one of his other passions – football.

“We celebrated our fifth anniversary with a celebrity football match at Stamford Bridge,” recalls Nathanson. “I played, went down with the inevitable groin strain after about five minutes, and was manfully dragged off the pitch and dropped in the bar.”

Football matches aside, a large part of Nathanson's job is negotiating between the two different cultures. “There are some very basic differences which I find common to nearly all transactions. For an Italian businessman, invariably his word is his bond. If he likes someone and there's a social side to the relationship, the contract is not of great relevance. Whereas the Englishman will want to produce a contract and will not be happy unless the contract is signed.”

Nathanson demonstrates this by relaying a story about when he was acting for the owner of Lotus on negotiations with a South Korean company that wished to buy the Italian carmaker. At the first meeting the solicitors on the other side, Slaughter and May, arrived with a document that was 300 pages long. Radcliffes arrived with a document that was two pages long. “My client threw his hands up in the air when he saw the other document and said, 'You must be joking',” Nathanson laughs. “In the end, albeit with a different party, a deal was done with a very short document, and there was friendship and synergy between Lotus and the people that bought the business.”

Nathanson would not give up these kind of incidents for the world – it is the perfect mix for him. As he says: “If you can mix business and pleasure, then that is a very good thing.”

Pat Thomas, SJ Berwin

If Nathanson is Radcliffes' Mr Italy, then Pat Thomas OBE is most certainly SJ Berwin's Queen of Planning. And like Italy is for Nathanson, planning is obviously a passion for Thomas.

Not surprisingly, however, it was not a childhood dream. No disrespect to the profession, but do you know any kids who want to be a planner when they grow up?

Thomas completed her initial degree in English – something that still comes in handy when developing planning proposals. She then took up a training contract at Biddle & Co, where she worked on a big redevelopment project. “It brought together everything I was interested in: architecture, history, London. I said then, 'That's what I would like to do'.”

The advice from her supervising partner was that, if planning was what she wanted to do, a stint in local government would not go amiss, as it would provide a real understanding for how such bodies operate.

Accordingly, she spent her next four years in local government at the Greater London Council (GLC) and the London Borough of Southwark, before moving back into private practice in 1979 at Denton Hall & Burgin (now Denton Wilde Sapte). She made partner just two years later and spent a “very happy” nine years there before joining SJ Berwin in 1998.

“I was brought in to set up the planning and environmental team,” she says, adding that the challenge of setting up her own team was one of the reasons for the move. These days she is supported by another 14 lawyers.

When asked why she thinks it was this year in particular that she won the award, she is a little unsure. In light of the other planning appointments, she adds: “Maybe someone was just having a good look at planning this year.” To be fair, this is a modest answer to a difficult question. What is obvious to any outsider is her commitment to the area.

The list of her involvements is indeed impressive. She is a member of the Law Society Planning and Environmental Law Committee, the Organising Committee of the Annual Oxford Joint Planning Law Conference and the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) property management forum. She is also a trustee of the Town and Country Planning Association and of the Theatres Trust. On top of that, as a legal associate of the Royal Town Planning Institute, she lectures at continuing education seminars.

With all that on her plate, it is surprising she has any time at all to run her practice. She admits to being lucky that the firm is very good about her “extracurricular” activities. “SJ Berwin is very supportive of the work I do,” she says. “Not all firms would be.”

Thomas has been active in helping the Law Society, the CBI and the Town and Country Planning Association with amendments for the planning bill that is currently going through Parliament.

“I think the present government has some clear ideas which they've been persistent in promoting,” Thomas says. In particular it has pushed for a reduction in the big shopping parks outside towns, which it believes will take the hearts out of small English villages. This, of course, has not been to the liking of the big developers, but how will the public react? “The man in the street might not appreciate it, but it's to keep the heart in the centre of the town,” she says.

Interestingly, Thomas says the public involvement in planning decisions is also on the increase. “We're aware of problems involving the public and allowing them to have their say,” she says. “There has to be a public inquiry and often it can take a lot longer to get things done.”

Thomas says her passion is visible in the development of London, which over her almost 30-year career has changed out of all recognition. She cites the regeneration of the Docklands area as one of the highlights, although seems less partial to the Erotic Gherkin (not a project that she advised on, if you were wondering).

One highlight of her career is the development of City Airport – a client that has been with her since her days as an assistant at Denton Hall. “They moved with me and I still act for them,” she says. “It's gone from days when it was just a little airstrip to a very busy airport. Flying over that is very rewarding.”