Meeting Peter Charlton is a big disappointment. “A Geordie thug who got fed up listening to Iron Maiden and drinking 20 pints a night, who came to London to become a lawyer,” is how one former partner at Clifford Chance describes the firm’s new London managing partner.
So, arriving at the firm with visions of a barely-tamed wild man roaming the corridors of the Aldersgate Street offices, it was a surprise to be receiving a greeting from a friendly lawyer-looking type with a soft north-east accent.
“I don’t think that’s particularly accurate,” says Charlton of this colourful description.
“I’m probably unusual in the sense that I don’t hide where I come from. I don’t try to push it, but it’s quite easy for people who react to an accent to know where I come from, and people have preconceptions about people who come from the north east,” he says.
One explanation of the caricature could, he says, stem from a year spent working at Scottish & Newcastle brewery before he began his law degree at University College London.
“In those days you didn’t necessarily use the year for travelling, plus I didn’t have the money for that.”
And Iron Maiden? “They were more eighties,” says Charlton, who is 44. “Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest – they were the bands in my day.”
In fact Charlton’s background is not that unusual for a Clifford Chance partner, many of whom did not reach the magic circle through the public school/Oxbridge network. “There is no Clifford Chance stereotype, apart from the fact that there is no stereotype.”
Charlton qualified at Coward Chance in 1981 and became a corporate partner five years later and executive partner in the corporate group in 1993. Sources say that when Clifford Chance was created in 1987 it was already clear that Charlton was heading for management.
But his progress was halted in 1997 when he came second to Tony Williams in the election for managing partner. One ex-Clifford Chance partner believes the international partners did not trust Charlton, who had not practised outside London, as much as Williams, who was head of the Moscow office.
This time Charlton’s election as managing partner of London – “and Dubai, because it doesn’t really fit anywhere else” – was uncontested. But what does the job mean within Clifford Chance’s complex new structure?
“It is focusing on London management issues but also on how London fits into the regions and with global management and the practice areas, so it goes up and down and across,” says Charlton.
“I think I have got a fairly high degree of latitude to make it what I want to make it. There are certain definite things I am responsible for, but how the job is carried out is down to me, which is quite nice,” he says smiling.
Sources say Charlton will use this flexibility. “He is respected and he’s approachable, but he’s not afraid to be tough if he has to. Previous managing partners have been so busy trying to balance different interests that they ended up getting nothing done, but he won’t be like that,” says one source.
The merger with Rogers & Wells was greeted in the UK as an acquisition by Clifford Chance, but there are whispers from New York that the Americans see things very differently. However, most believe he is the man to fight London’s corner as the new global firm takes shape.
He plays down this aspect of his job, but he adds: “I would say that the culture of a UK City firm is quite different from the culture of any US or New York major firm. The culture isn’t that different, as Rogers & Wells partners did vote unanimously to do what they have done. There’s a shared vision and that will mean change and the willingness to accept it.”
Charlton says part of his job will be to make sure partners do not get carried away with their global practices to the detriment of London. “London is less influential than it was, but it is still the biggest office. We have got a great practice in London, but it’s developing at different stages. We want to continue building the corporate practice and maintain our market-leading finance practice, which is difficult to juggle. We are the only firm that is really trying to do that.”
Charlton missed out on the job many expected him to get in 1997. But if London now has to fight for influence as the new firm takes shape, it could be that his partners have elected a man whose time has come.