It is not surprising that Paul Giles won the contested election to become the new chairman of Norton Rose. He has a quality attributable to all successful politicians: that ability to answer questions without really saying anything at all. Not only that, he does it in a super-smooth manner, always very careful not to upset anyone in the process.
Here’s an example. When discussing his impending move to London, the subject of congestion charging arises (fairly innocuous, one would have thought), and Giles is prepared to give me his views – it is just that he is not prepared to let us publish them (not that anyone is really likely to care).
To be fair, however, there are other reasons why Giles won the role. Insiders say he is a more charismatic leader than his predecessor David Lewis, which is fitting given his politician’s personality. And along with chief executive Peter Martyr, he represents a changing of the guard at the firm.
Giles is certainly the more international face of Norton Rose, in line with the firm’s stated goals: to consolidate its international practice and develop its more recently opened overseas offices, which include Bangkok, Beijing, Germany and Hong Kong.
“I suppose that there’ll be a natural bent for me towards the global business, because I’ve just been working in an international office and an international environment,” he says. “Naturally, I’ll aim to spend more time on global issues and international issues.”
Finally, he is great at maintaining and developing client relationships – an important quality for any chairman or senior partner worth their salt, and something that a politician’s personality is well suited to.
Despite the fact that he has not undertaken any fee-earning in the recent past, he still maintains strong relationships with his key clients Cathay Pacific and Malaysia Airlines, as well as with a number of other major corporates and government entities in Asia. “These relationships will all continue,” he says, “although more at a distance than previously.”
The day we meet, Giles is preparing to head back to Singapore, where he has been Norton Rose’s international managing partner for Asia for the past six years, to tie up loose ends before he makes the move to London.
His trip has been somewhat hampered by the SARS outbreak, which has seen the firm impose a 10-day quarantine period on lawyers travelling in and out of the region. He is also nervous that his wife’s hay fever and his runny nose (which he promises me is nothing more serious than a cold) is going to be misdiagnosed.
Giles has spent most of his professional career in Asia and he retains that expat air. His accent, his tanned skin and his smooth-talking, public schoolboy manner all see him fit a mould of the Brit who has settled himself comfortably in a nicer climate on a good wage, with a few decent golf courses and a couple of sailing boats nearby. You know the type.
It seems Giles ended up as a lawyer in Asia almost more by good luck than good management. He falls into that category of lawyers who never saw the profession as a vocation and certainly did not plan his career path. “There wasn’t a great blinding light on a road to Damascus,” he says, explaining that he just kind of “fell into” it at university.
Likewise, there was no particular aim to work in Asia. Instead it was a winter of discontent in London that prompted the move. “It was the winter of 73 in England. There were lots of industrial disputes going on. When you got up in morning you’d have either gas or electricity, but very rarely both. The trains sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Also, the tax rate was ridiculously high,” he explains.
It is not surprising then that in 1974 he jumped at the opportunity to work at Johnson Stokes & Master in Hong Kong. His three-year contract came and went, but he was not about to budge from Asia. He became a partner at Johnson Stokes in 1978 and spent a further 10 years there, three of which were in Tokyo.
In fact, it was not until 1988, when Giles was married with three kids about to start secondary school, that he headed back to the UK and duly arrived at Norton Rose.
“When I came back in 1988 we thought we were back for good, until Mr Birkby [the then managing partner of Norton Rose] threw a cat among the pigeons,” Giles says. That ‘cat’ was the offer to go and set up the Singapore office in 1997. In the end it took only a day to make the decision. He sold up and went.
As the role developed, he was responsible for opening offices in Bangkok and Beijing and for reopening Hong Kong. He claims the Asian practice has been a great success. “Unfortunately, I arrived to the start of the Asian economic crisis, which was a real challenge,” he says. “But now all the offices are profitable except for Hong Kong.” Hong Kong is still in a growth phase.
Others may not agree that Asia has been such a success. First there was the disaster in Hong Kong which saw Norton Rose effectively booted out for three years after an acrimonious split with its then joint venture partner Johnson Stokes – Giles’ former firm, by coincidence. The firm has also yet to cultivate more than a handful of local lawyers in the region, despite the length of time it has had a presence there.
“Asia’s going to grow,” says Giles categorically, although when asked to give a figure on the amount that Asia contributes to the firm’s turnover, he says he is unable to remember, other than to say it is a “net contributor”.
“If you look at China and Indonesia, they’re huge, huge countries with huge opportunities for doing business,” he says. “We’ve been in Asia for a long time and we’ve got people who’ve been there a long time. It’s right to say we’re committed to Asia and are remaining committed to Asia. The fact that we reopened in Hong Kong shows that.”
But for the meantime, Asia is in the past for Giles. Now it is time to turn his attention to the job at hand. So how does he see himself differing from the former chairman?
“I think it’s a role that’s evolving,” he says. “The chairman role is something that does differ from individual to individual – people play to their strengths.” When pressed further, he adds: “I don’t have any great vision about how this role is to be and how it’s to develop, because I don’t know all that it involves. It’s not a managing role and it’s not an executive role in the way that my last job was.”
I wonder if this really is the case: surely the firm would not have voted for someone that it thought lacked the vision to take it forward.
“Ask me in a year’s time,” he jokes. But partners are no doubt hoping he knows what he will be doing long before then.