Softly softly

Alan Jenkins, Eversheds’ newly-elected chairman, is a very measured man. It is reflected not only in what he says, but also in the way he says it. Careful pauses punctuate his thoughts and he often stops himself mid-sentence to more precisely clarify his answer.

Surprisingly for a litigator, he is rather quietly spoken and his arms, which remain folded across his chest for much of the interview, suggest he won’t be giving away too many secrets.

Not that he is not perfectly pleasant and polite. He has a fatherly air about him. Sources in the firm say he is well liked and well supported by the partnership, and that he is an exceptionally intelligent man. But he obviously treads with caution.

In his new role as chairman, and his continuing role as head of international, do not expect any sudden US merger or office openings in Iraq. It seems more likely that any strategic move will have been well thought-out and planned to the final detail beforehand. It is a style that is well suited to the Eversheds model. When talking of expansion and possible integration of alliance offices, Jenkins says: “We took quite a number of years in the UK to move from conception to full integration, and we think it’s a model that’s worked well for us.”

That said, he agrees that integration is important. “The ultimate objective is to achieve as much integration as possible,” he argues.
“Our experience is that you’re most likely to fulfil your objectives and potential if you share the burden of what you’re doing.” Indeed, some activity outside the UK is on the cards for the firm. Unlike predecessors Keith James and David Ansbro, who were both focused on integrating the offices within the UK, Jenkins and managing partner David Gray have turned their attention to the firm’s international presence. It is a job that suits Jenkins well, because, he suggests, it is in his genes. His father was a UK solicitor and his mother a French nurse.

He spent his early years in Dorset and was schooled in Bristol. But in his gap year he followed in his mother’s footsteps, taking a job at a hospital in Paris. He worked there as a porter on the general and psychiatric wards, as well as in the operating theatre. “It was an interesting experience,” he says. “It gave me my first experience of bed pans and incontinent old ladies… The brief few weeks in one of the psychiatric wards was not a pleasant experience, it was very distressing.”

Overall, though, the experience was a positive one, Jenkins says, and he briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor. “After that I considered the possibility of doing medicine,” he laughs. “But as they very kindly pointed out at Oxford, I didn’t actually have any science qualifications at all, other than the odd O-level; so if I wanted to do it I was going to have to do the pre-med course.” In the end he followed his father’s path and studied law.

In 1975, fresh from Oxford, he joined Frere Cholmeley, which was later to become Frere Cholmeley Bischoff (FCB), which later merged with Eversheds. In that respect he is Eversheds man and boy. He became a partner in the litigation department just six years after qualifying and was shortly heading the team. In 1990 he became the head of the environmental law group, when the Environmental Protection Act went through Parliament.

“There was that famous speech by Margaret Thatcher, at the Royal Society, where she stunned everybody in showing an interest in environmental. It woke everybody, including me,” he says.

But it was not until 1996 that he took on a more serious management role, that of managing partner at FCB. He took over the reins at a challenging time. The firm had expanded rapidly throughout Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but by the mid-1990s had closed offices in Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels and Dubai. Jenkins led the firm through to its merger with Eversheds in 1998, which gave the latter a significant presence in Paris, plus offices in Moscow and Monaco (Eversheds has since shed the latter two). Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Jenkins has a cautious approach to overseas expansion.

At the time of the merger with Eversheds, Jenkins stood down from his management role and returned to fee-earning.

But did that initial taste of a management role leave him wanting more? “I think I’d been managing partner [and] it wasn’t something I wanted to do again,” he says with a laugh.

I am about to ask if that is because of the difficulties at FCB, but before I get the chance, he adds: “Not for the reason you had in mind – it’s not that it’s a poison chalice or anything like it. But I like doing new things, different things. I’m not suggesting for a moment that my colleagues would have elected me, but it didn’t cross my mind.
But having been a managing partner, it wasn’t something I wanted to do again.”

As it turned out, his mind would be on something quite different for the next three years. On his return to fee-earning, it was no time at all before the Lockerbie case landed on his desk.

“It was a unique experience,” says Jenkins, who had the role of project managing the case for the two accused, Abdel Baset Al Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhima.

Eversheds became involved because for many years it had represented different Libyan interests in the International Court of Justice on substantial commercial arbitrations and on investments throughout Europe.

“Our involvement in Lockerbie came about because the man who was handling the defence of the two men was a lawyer in Tripoli who we’d done a lot of work with over the years,” Jenkins explains. “He realised he’d need a lot of assistance and he turned to us because he didn’t really know where else to go.”

After finding Scottish lawyers to defend the pair, Jenkins stayed on to oversee the case, acting almost like an in-house lawyer. It took up three years of his time and finished up in early 2002. When the opportunity came to take on the role of international head, the timing could not have been more perfect.

“It would be fair to say that when you’ve done something like the Lockerbie case, which is all-consuming, it makes you think about what you’re going to do next,” he says. “So I was looking for something new, and that could’ve been a new firm, a new or different field of legal practice or, as it turns out, this.” He obviously relishes the international role; indeed, the firm’s international strategy dominates our conversation. He is quick to fend off criticism, for example, about the firm’s lack of presence in Germany.

“Germany’s always on the horizon,” he says. “And as I’ve said to colleagues within the firm, it wouldn’t be difficult for us to find somebody in Germany, so that we could say within a very short space of time, ‘hey, we’ve got an office in Germany’. But it’s much more important for us to get the right relationship in Germany. We’ve come close on a couple of occasions in the last four years and I’ve every confidence that we will get there. But we aren’t going to rush into something just because there’s a hole on the map.”

Outside Germany, Jenkins says Central and Eastern Europe is an important area of focus. The firm has also recently relocated a partner to Qatar to build on the relationship formed around a year ago with local partnership Al-Jufairi. It continues its close relationship with Singapore firm Khattar Wong & Partners, with which it shares a joint venture in Shanghai. “The gap in all of that is India, which I think is a conundrum for a lot of law firms because of the restrictive conditions for international firms wanting to practise law,” Jenkins says. But with the likelihood that practice regimes will be liberalised in coming years, Jenkins is keeping a close eye on the region.

And what of the US? I ask. “I was wondering when you’d get round to that,” he laughs. “We have a number of firms that we work a good deal with, but it’s not presently part of our plans to merge with a US law firm or establish our own office in the US. If other firms based on this side want to do that sort of thing, then good for them. I think that increases our market opportunities.”

Jenkins clearly has yet to be convinced by US mergers. “Looking from the outside,” he argues, “transatlantic mergers don’t seem to bring enough to the parties to outweigh the disadvantages.”

So Jenkins is undoubtedly more of a tortoise than a hare. I suspect he will achieve a lot for Eversheds, both internationally and in the UK – but only in his, and the firm’s, own good time. Let’s just hope that Eversheds has not left its international run too late.
Alan Jenkins