The family seat

Try telling Emilio Cuatrecasas that lawyers are not cut out to be entrepreneurs. At the age of 26 he took the helm of his father’s three-partner tax boutique and took it from a turnover of e250,000 (£194,936) to e225m (£175.44m) in a quarter of a century.

One Cuatrecasas partner says of his chairman: “His entrepreneurial spirit has no limits. He could sell fridges at the North Pole.”

Having built up the family firm to become one of Europe’s biggest, Emilio Cuatrecasas now sees it as being at an important stage in its development. One of his biggest challenges will be to establish a lasting legacy for the firm and to follow clients overseas.

In person, Cuatrecasas speaks a clear and measured Spanish, reflecting the orderliness of his thoughts. He ranks the firm’s international priorities. For the moment, Paris is number one. Then the major financial centres of New York, London and Shanghai. After that comes Latin America and Brussels.

There is a one-partner representative office in France, but Cuatrecasas wants to develop that into a full office doing French work. “We want to build up a local practice in Paris,” he says. “We want to grow there.”

French drinks company Pernod Ricard is a big client of the firm. Cuatrecasas himself negotiated the purchase of Cuban rum Havana Club with Fidel Castro in the mid-1990s.

Today, Cuatrecasas is multi-tasking. The firm has already won a Shanghai practice licence and he intends to open an office there by the end of the year. Meanwhile, he transferred São Paulo managing partner Jaime Llopis from Brazil to Madrid to take over the Latin American operation and is also looking to start up a small presence in Mexico.

But whether Cuatrecasas will join Herbert Smith’s alliance in the course of its expansion is a sensitive subject. “Our relationships with Herbert Smith, Gleiss Lutz and Stibbe are excellent,” he notes. “There hasn’t been any decision made about joining the network. It’s open.” It is hardly a ringing endorsement.

In the meantime, he will go it alone with his international expansion plans. While building up the firm, Cuatrecasas picked up a personal fortune in canny investments to make him one of Europe’s wealthiest lawyers. He is chairman of one of Spain’s largest chains of motorway service stations and employs 11 people to manage his hefty investment portfolio through a holding company called Emesa.

Along the way Cuatrecasas has struck up friendships with the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, and Bill Clinton. In April, Tony Blair, himself a former barrister, is coming to give a talk to the firm’s lawyers and clients.

Cuatrecasas says of his personal fortune: “I could lose it all tomorrow but my living standard is secured by what I earn in the firm.”

Cuatrecasas ;delegates ;the investment and business decisions to managers, leaving him free to devote almost all his professional time to directing the firm from his Barcelona base.

He is a champion of the light touch when it comes to partnership management. He likes to set people tasks and let them get on with it, which he says creates a bond of trust and encourages those around him to be entrepreneurs themselves.

“My style is very decentralised,” says Cuatrecasas. “I try to improve people rather than give central orders.” He later adds: “I’m ready for the success and I’m not ready for the failure.”

As a result he has been able to keep a close group of partners loyal to him and the firm since the early 1980s – including deputy managing partner Rafael Fontana and London partner Enric Picanyol. The trust has been returned to Cuatrecasas and he received 100 per cent of the partnership vote to appoint him chairman of the firm when his father left the post a few years ago.

Emilio will be the last of the Cuatrecasas dynasty to head the firm as none of his three daughters have chosen to become lawyers. It is as if he feels the history of the firm rests on his shoulders. Indeed, he conducts the interview sitting on the beaten leather chair of his grandfather, who set up the firm in 1917. The original founding documents are encased in glass in the Barcelona lobby.

His identity is closely linked to the firm and this drives him forward. With all his investments and business interests, Emilio Cuatrecasas need never work another day in his life. So why not take the yacht off to the Bahamas and never come back?To which he says: “This firm is my family, my home, my best friends all under one roof. It is my roots.”