The impostor

Tarlo Lyons’ Nigel McEwan says he’s never really understood law. So it’s just as well that the role of managing partner is right up his street

Nigel McEwan is, he claims, a rubbish lawyer. The managing partner of Tarlo Lyons just never got a handle on how to analyse a legal problem, which may give hope to law students currently crying over their trusts tutorial.

“I would go for meetings with the client and counsel and counsel would advise the client completely the opposite way that I had advised. But I used to talk my way out of it,” he confesses. “If you think of a complicated legal problem as being a process of getting from A straight through to Z with two choices at the beginning, then I would go down the wrong route to about G and then return to the second route.”

But McEwan argues that his failure to shine as a litigator means that he is a better managing partner because he truly respects the rest of the members of Tarlo Lyons for being good at what they do. And the market concurs that he is an excellent leader for the firm which many regard as a little gem, including Birmingham superpower Wragge & Co which recently came a wooing, followed by 15 other suitors.

“Some managing partners are very good lawyers themselves, and so can’t understand if some of their lawyers are having problems,” says McEwan. “I think being a commercial lawyer is a very, very difficult job and that is why our skills are prized and we’re paid a premium rate for them.”

McEwan says that he entered the law following advice from his father who told him that you never see a solicitor on a bicycle. He says that he now realises that he should never have become a lawyer. His skills undoubtedly are as a manager, but he says that given the choice of career again, he would not like to manage in a big multinational because he enjoys the flexibility that comes with a smaller enterprise.

While his honesty is not so much a breath of fresh air as a huge gale blowing in from the Atlantic, I am a bit dubious as to whether McEwan was as dire a lawyer as he makes out. After all, partnerships are not handed out like sweets at Tarlo Lyons, which keeps its equity down to 11, just enough to create a little bit of a squeeze around the board table.

“I think there was a measure of sympathy involved,” claims McEwan. “I did work very hard at it. I spent a lot of time in the office which in the legal profession wins you Brownie points. But I was also good at the client stuff.”

So perhaps McEwan’s fellow partners spotted a very valuable skill in a lawyer who couldn’t do law but still managed to attract clients. It is these skills that have helped create Tarlo Lyons, although of course, he is now attracting clients for people who can do law.

Unfortunately, market conditions have meant that the little gem has had to become smaller in the past couple of weeks, losing three fee-earners from IT procurement, a key area for the firm. McEwan says that the department was suffering from the beginning of the year, and September’s events have put a complete halt to major capital projects.

“Prior to 11 September we saw trends in outsourcing and data protection work,” he says. “There’s also been a big increase in dispute resolution work, but not litigation. There are a lot of big IT projects going wrong, but nobody is wanting to litigate on them because they’re hugely expensive and hugely risky.”

But looking to the future, McEwan is pinning his hopes on a major reinvestment in IT once the tremors from 11 September have subsided. To this end he quotes the results from three surveys: the first predicts an extra £100bn will be spent on IT in the next year worldwide; the second predicts that for 60 per cent of companies investment in e-commerce will rise on average by 15 per cent next year; and the last one predicts that by 2010, new technology will lead to a 30 per cent reduction in employment as computers take over people’s jobs. (In fact, this very piece is now written by a computer programme – merely enter a few key words and within minutes the computer spews out 1,300 words of almost entirely random, rambling prose. Marvellous, eh? The real Fiona Callister has been put into cryogenic storage until her dubious skills are required once more.)

McEwan points out that the atrocity has focused companies’ attention on back-up systems. “Those businesses that survived the World Trade Center collapse so well were those that had invested in back-up systems,” he says. “If they had not done so then there would have been real problems with world liquidity by now. But back-up systems were previously very low on people’s priorities and were not seen as being at the core of people’s businesses. But now there is a real acknowledgement on the part of banks in particular [of the importance of back-ups].”

So, given that IT-related work has ceased to be the golden goose that it was 18 months ago, has Tarlo Lyons decided to broaden its horizons and venture into other markets? Not a bit of it, says McEwan, in fact the firm has decided to focus on the sector more than ever. “There was a move [by many firms] from bricks into clicks, and we’re now seeing the move from clicks back to bricks. I think [those firms] will not, for the foreseeable future, devote as much resource to this area. We’ve looked at our strategy again after getting together with management consultants and decided that we want to be pre-eminent in the area, as we’ve got the expertise.”

But within the sector, the firm does want to widen its services by handling more corporate finance and dispute resolution work. When considering the firm’s recent cuts, McEwan says it was considered whether the fee-earners could be moved into either of those areas, but eventually their skills did not match up to the departments’ requirements.

While McEwan says he is bemused that anyone could be interested in the redundancies, which also included three support staff, he does not attempt to sweep the issue under the carpet, and does seem genuinely sorry that he has had to let them go. Perhaps this, where everyone follows each other, comes through working for a small firm, or perhaps McEwan is just a nice guy.

On McEwan’s list of admirers is a certain John Crabtree of Wragges. The pair first met at The Lawyer Awards and from that introduction came merger talks that fell through at the beginning of September.

“I was quite surprised that we, as a firm, had not had more approaches before that. We’re quite a nice size to bite off without causing too much disruption,” says McEwan with a little smile. “John Crabtree wove his charm and I formed a very good personal relationship with him. The more he talked about Wragges the more impressed I became. The key element for us is the people and maintaining our culture, and Wragges had managed very well at retaining their culture.”

But after a few months the initial attraction wore off and the talks lost momentum. “We felt that as a smaller firm we were probably quicker on our feet, and they had a rather different way of making decisions,” says McEwan. He says that he was also worried about the feasibility of maintaining a marriage along the M40.

But since those merger talks were revealed, the firm has had a flurry of US and UK suitors – 15 in total. None have particularly caught Tarlo Lyons’ eye and McEwan says that nothing has come of any of the approaches. “We’ve decided that we’re quite happy as we are. We can be distinctive on our own,” he says.

The problem with staying single is that Tarlo Lyons really wants to start spreading abroad, and that was something it was planning to do with Wragges. “We’re operating in the third biggest global sector after oil and sex and we need to respond to the technology sector, which is very international,” says McEwan.

Tarlo Lyons is part of the Euro IT network, which has just welcomed a new member – Amsterdam firm Kennedy Van der Laan. McEwan hopes that the network will develop into a series of very close relationships and possibly a merger.
But even if that does happen, Tarlo Lyons is still lacking the Far East and the US. And that’s where it needs a merger partner.
Nigel McEwan
Managing partner
Tarlo Lyons