Attila the Welshman

Robert Sutton is stepping into the shoes of Macfarlanes' legendary senior partner, Vanni Treves, determined to be his own man. Linda Tsang reports.

When asked how he found time to be chairman of the London Business School, chairman of Channel Four and personal adviser to John Paul Getty II, the outgoing senior partner at City firm Macfarlanes, Vanni Treves said: “It's all down to the art of delegation and mutual support, and I've got three partners here in my office all nodding their heads.”

But the man chosen to succeed him – Robert Sutton, one of the firm's corporate finance partners, was certainly not one of those three. He was offered the job after a lengthy consultation process and takes over next May.

Sutton's reputation for not being a yes man is confirmed by a Big Five partner: “His appointment is not a surprise. Sutton has always been a force to be reckoned with in corporate finance.

“His negotiating style on occasion has been downright rude, but he has mellowed. He is also his own man, and you will know that he is steering the ship.”

Sutton though says that Treves will be a hard act to follow. “Vanni has been a remarkable senior partner in all sorts of ways,” he says, adding that Treeves is well-known outside the legal world.

Asked whether he will build up a similar reputation, Sutton jokes: “I doubt if anyone will ask me to take similar positions.” But he would also find it hard to find time for outside activities because he intends to carry on doing as much fee-earning work as possible.

Sutton stresses that there are no plans for any major changes at Macfarlanes. “The firm already has a reasonably successful formula and, generally, lawyers are not great believers in strategic plans,” he says.

Apart from a short-lived alliance that included US firm O'Melveny & Myers, and Paris firm Simeon & Associes in the early 1990s, the Macfarlanes policy is to remain independent. It closed its Tokyo office in April 1997, and the Japanese practice is now run from London.

About the break-up of the alliance, Sutton says: “That was a phase in the firm's international practice. We were asked to enter into that relationship and we did it with our eyes open. It had its time and, when it came to be dissolved, it was on a most amiable basis.”

The firm does not intend to lose its independent status. It is one of the few City firms that deserves the cliched tag of “punching above its weight”. With estimated profits of #40m, and profits per partner of almost #450,000 (not too far behind Clifford Chance and Linklaters & Alliance), it is seen in the market as a very attractive merger partner.

But the party line is that “what is right for the firm is to be independent of ties and affiliations, both formal and informal”.

Sutton confirms that the firm is often approached by other law firms and the Big Five accountancy firms. “Our view on mergers is well known. We see more merit and advantage in staying independent, and see many difficulties such as the culture clashes, distractions in management time, and the one-off costs and no guarantees of success in merging. The same applies, only more so, in the case of linking with an accountancy firm.”

Another Big Five law firm partner says: “Sutton is well placed to maintain standards at the firm and to take advantage of the strain on the manpower resources of the other firms expanding overseas.”

“Quality quality quality” is the mantra that Sutton believes in.

He won a first in history at Oxford, and did his articles at Macfarlanes. When he qualified, he worked on the private client side, and then had a brief stint at White & Case in New York, before returning to join the Macfarlanes corporate finance department in 1980. He has considered leaving the firm on only one other occasion, in the late 1980s when he was asked to join a client company as in-house counsel.

Now at the helm of the firm, he says there is no need to expand for expansion's sake: “It's a question of doing even better than now. It is also a matter of being ambitious, but being realistic about those ambitions,” says Sutton.

Treves says he is certain Sutton will be a formidable force, adding: “It is not for nothing that he is know as Attila the Hun, or perhaps more accurately, Attila the Welshman.”