Happy as Barrie

After downsizing at his last firm, private equity boss Keir Barrie is happier to be charged with expansion at Theodore Goddard. Kathryn Hobbs reports

Keir Barrie, head of private equity at Theodore Goddard, is settling in to his new firm. He has been at Theodore Goddard since May and the novelty still hasn’t worn off. For Barrie, the firm offers the stability of an established, dyed-in-the-wool City firm and the challenge of expanding its private equity practice.

Theodore Goddard is a far cry from Barrie’s last firm, Buchanan Ingersoll. There he was captain of a sinking ship once the firm’s Pittsburgh head office had decided to scuttle its infant full-service London office. Barrie’s job was less trying to bail out the rising waters than making sure everyone was on board a rescue vessel. Having shed almost all of its partners, Buchanan currently runs a tiny operation in London supporting US clients in Europe.

Barrie joined Buchanan in February 2001, only to find that the firm’s enthusiasm for a London outpost had begun to wane. By July of that year, Buchanan had ditched its PFI team, and in a radical overhaul of its original game plan was looking to slim London right down to the bone. Having managed the downsizing process, Barrie was off to pastures new with Theodore Goddard less than 18 months after joining the US firm.

Ironically, he has joined Theodore Goddard at a time when some of his prospective corporate colleagues have departed for their own US odyssey in the wake of the firm’s failed merger talks with Salans Hertzfeld & Heilbronn. Theodore Goddard’s former managing partner Peter Kavanagh departed for Hunton & Williams, Simon Goodworth and Simon Currie joined Covington & Burling and Janene Waudby moved to Jones Day Reavis & Pogue.

Barrie decided that, far from being a problem, losing a number of corporate partners was an opportunity to make his mark. “I started talking to them when that was all happening, and they were terribly worried that I’d see it in The Lawyer. I sat down and talked to them about the reasons why people were leaving. And, no, I wasn’t worried, because I knew what they were trying to achieve and where they were trying to get to, which was to stay as a City practice, but grow. What we’ve got to deal with is how we achieve that and that’s the process we’re going through at the moment.”

He pauses, then adds: “I looked at it as being positive because it was going to be change – change in the right direction.” Flux seems to be something Barrie has had to get used to. He swapped his provincial roots for an in-house post at 3i in the 1980s, only to be made redundant when the recession began to bite in the early 1990s. He joined DLA in one of its previous and considerably smaller guises, just as the firm undertook its massive growth spurt. The Buchanan saga is already well known.

“My CV reads ‘started private equity practice’ everywhere I go,” he says. “A friend once said, ‘Why on earth don’t you just go somewhere that already does private equity?’. And I said, ‘If they’ve already got it, they don’t need someone coming in at my level because they’ve got junior people coming up’.”

Barrie’s corporate career began when he joined private equity house 3i in 1984. Jumping in at the deep end, he applied somewhat hopefully, admitting that he had no corporate experience. “I had to do a bit of digging to find out what on earth it was because it had changed its name. Someone said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s got more money than the Government. Go and join it’.”

Without this fortuitous vacancy appearing, Barrie’s career could have been very different. “Before 3i I was in a very small firm doing commercial litigation and I was also duty solicitor for three local magistrates courts. I spent a lot of time in police cells talking to whoever had been arrested the night before, and then doing commercial litigation took me to the boardroom. The boardroom appealed an awful lot more than sitting in police cells,” he explains.

Barrie upgraded his career from advising petty criminals to orchestrating management buyouts. “It was a huge change. The people were very helpful. It was a very paternalistic organisation then, so everyone was more or less trying to help you succeed, because if you succeeded, they succeeded,” he says. Having been given the elbow when 3i reduced its legal ranks, Barrie spent six months travelling. He says his time at 3i gave him an excellent springboard into private practice, even though he was looking for a position at the height of the recession.

On his return, he had three offers to choose from, thanks in part, he says, to his unusual name. Apparently Keir Barrie – which I’m informed is of Scottish origin, a fact made plainer when Barrie reveals that his middle name is Macfarlane – sticks in people’s minds.

The six-month breather gave Barrie a fresh perspective on the work-life balance. A self-confessed workaholic while at 3i (he used to have the office opened just so he could work on Saturdays), Barrie says a friend told him to go away and take some time out. “She said, ‘All you can talk about is work, so go and experience something else’. She was absolutely right,” he admits. “I thought I wasn’t going to come back any different. I was 35 going on 36 and thought, ‘I’m not going to change’. But of course I did.”

Barrie is a gregarious individual and Theodore Goddard suits this trait more fully than Buchanan. “It’s the interaction I enjoy, which is why staying at Buchanan wasn’t an option for me.” As Buchanan started to haemorrhage lawyers, Barrie could find fewer reasons to keep him there.

Understandably, for him the excitement comes from building up a practice rather than whittling one down. “It’s coming in, training, introducing, growing so that the assistants are dealing directly with the client and the client then becomes a firm client,” he explains. “Private equity in particular uses virtually every group within a multi-service firm. You need that back-up.” Back-up wasn’t a priority for Buchanan. With its full-service model in tatters, Barrie’s private equity practice and clients were looking increasingly isolated.

He says: “Buchanan asked me to stay on, but the longer I stayed there, without the immediate support that any corporate or private equity lawyer needs from tax, property, employment etc, my practice would have suffered because of the perceived notion that private equity institutions need to go to a full-service firm, full stop.”
Barrie boasts a pretty tidy client list, including the Royal Bank of Scotland’s private equity and venture capital arms.

He claims that being part of a high-profile policy U-turn did not engender a siege mentality among the remaining Buchanan partners. Emotions were put aside and pragmatism became the dominant force. Barrie argues that winding down Buchanan’s London office was more like doing a deal than anything else. There was a fixed time frame and a series of objectives, so he had to plan to make sure they were all accomplished within the allotted time.

“It was just something that needed to be done. Some of it wasn’t very pleasant, so you rolled your sleeves up and got on with it,” he says. “You did it in the best possible way you could. My attitude was, you just deal with it, and if there are issues, you just deal with those issues. I always look back, wherever I’ve been, and think, ‘Well, what did I learn?’ And if you’ve learned something then it’s not been a waste of time. I don’t regret going to Buchanan at all.”
Barrie is clearly not the sort to waste time looking backwards. He is driven and focused on what he can build at Theodore Goddard. I suspect he has stubborn tendencies. He can certainly be singleminded: he decided he was going to be a lawyer when he was seven and nothing has distracted him from that aim.

Barrie recalls: “First of all I wanted to be a town planner. My uncle was a town planner, so I talked to him about what I wanted to do. He said, ‘Well, town planning’s fine, but the pay isn’t very good. Why don’t you become a lawyer? I’ve never seen a poor lawyer’.” And with that, he was off.
Keir Barrie
Head of private equity
Theodore Goddard