Turner surprise

A Clifford Chance partner once described Catrin Turner as a “bohemian lawyer”.

“What does that mean?” she scoffs, arguing that the words ‘bohemian’ and ‘lawyer’ do not sit together comfortably. “A bohemian lawyer is someone who doesn’t order the same sandwich five days in a row,” she adds.

Perhaps the Clifford Chance guy was referring to a character trait which sees her positively embracing risk. “I’ve never taken the steady route, I’ve always said, ‘Let’s do something interesting’,” says Turner. “Otherwise you end up as an equity partner in the firm where you trained, and God, you might as well be buried alive.”

Turner, until recently a partner at H2O, is nothing if not outspoken, and admits that she does not beat around the bush with clients, colleagues and opponents alike. She has also learnt from her secretary and an assistant at H2O that she carries with her a reputation for being a bit of a nightmare to work with.

“I don’t know where that came from,” she laughs, as she lights up another Marlboro Light. “Perhaps it’s to do with being short. But with junior lawyers here, if there’s a performance issue, I’ll back them up against a wall and find out what the performance issue is, rather than a client having to do it.”

My impression – for what it’s worth – is that Turner is feisty and energetic, so perhaps she does not appreciate being slowed down by anyone. But she is also very funny and a long way from being an identikit grey lawyer. In fact, she obviously enjoys shattering stereotypes, which I glean from her proud boast that friends come to see her when they are at a crossroads in their life, knowing that she will empower them to take the risky option. When young lawyers come in for the ‘where’s my career going’ chat, she shudders and tells them to chill out.

December saw Turner, sidekick Eddie Powell and the rest of the team decide to leave niche IP and media firm H2O, formerly known as Henry Hepworth, for KPMG’s law firm KLegal. It is a move that comes only two and a half years after she and Powell departed Davies Arnold Cooper (DAC) and one that will lead to the demise of H2O. The media team, too, is currently in talks to find a new home.

Earlier in 2001, Turner’s move would perhaps have been considered risky, with KLegal still fighting for recognition as a serious player in the market. But the news that changed the market opinion of KLegal also made Turner sit up and take notice – the appointment of former BT head of legal Alan Whitfield.

“The idea that I can work with a former head of legal that has that breadth of experience is great,” Turner enthuses. “KLegal is a very ambitious firm and Eddie and I were looking for a firm that we can get excited about. It has some serious heavy hitters.”

After it became obvious that clients were demanding a global capacity and Turner began to believe that niche could not kick it anymore, she and Powell started talking to various firms about a new home.

“Tesco [one of her biggest clients] in 1995 was focused on national retailing, but now it’s multinational,” she observes. “To remain specialist we have to be able to offer international advice, competition and tax. If we wanted to be a small firm then that’s fine, but both Eddie and I wanted to work with large clients.”

Powell and Turner started talks with other firms in April last year, but were mostly disappointed. “We went to meetings with some firms and it was like being embalmed alive,” she says. “Talking to all those firms, it became clear that the only option that really excited all of us was the MDP [multidisciplinary partnership] because, as we deal with intangible assets, we’re used to sitting alongside other disciplines.

“Now, rather than going into a traditional structure, we can go into a large client and say, ‘Talk to us about where the issues are and we’ll produce a solution’. You get to step outside the lawyer box and the problem is that lawyers have the worst reputation among those clients – worse than dentists. It’s like saying, ‘We’re going to inflict root canal surgery and charge you £400 an hour for it’.”

Although Turner and Powell are taking their practice wholesale, she nevertheless admits that it will be hard to leave the media side of the firm. But it is not the first painful departure undertaken by Turner. While the departure of the IP team from DAC came amid a stream of other exits, Turner said that her silence to the media at the time was because she did not want to be bracketed among the exodus.

“The chief executive [Nick Sinfield] said to me when I said I was leaving, ‘Well Catrin, you know when I told you IP was core, well I was lying, and you knew I was lying’. But I stayed because the atmosphere was so wonderful there; but eventually you accepted that it wasn’t the best place for the practice.”

Turner claims to have been the first woman lawyer to wear trousers at DAC, working on the argument that as long as she wore four-inch heels, she could wear what she liked.

But with this latest move, Turner says that she will not miss certain aspects. She effectively ran H2O, and so 50 per cent of her time was spent on management and “changing the lightbulbs”.

One client that has stayed with her since her days at DAC and which will be moving to KLegal is Tesco, for which she is currently preparing the next round in the epic Levi Strauss grey market case. Her latest tactic is to re-emphasise the human rights aspect of the argument, which was ignored in the European Court of Justice ruling.

While the right to cheaper jeans is not one that will go down in history alongside that for universal suffrage, Turner believes that Tesco has a strong case to put before the High Court next year.

Turner grins as she is laying out the argument, and when asked what she thinks her chances are of winning this round, will only say after a pause that she is glad she is arguing for Tesco rather than Levi’s.

And for the record, she volunteers, she has two pairs of jeans from Tesco together with a brand from Lithuania that no one has ever heard of.

All this fashion talk segues nicely into a subject that I was hesitant of raising, but knew that if I did not do so the office would give me grief – Turner’s television presenter and former Evening Standard fashion editor sister Lowri. In fact, the two are the identical pair in a set of girl triplets born on New Year’s Eve. Despite my hesitancy – as you never know with siblings whether they’re team-mates or rivals – once Turner starts talking about Lowri, she can’t seem to stop herself.

Being identical, Turner has to put up with the occasional Lowri fan stopping her in the street; and Lowri has to put up with occasional ‘sightings’ of her in late-night bars. When we speak, Turner is glowing with pride because Lowri has just won a special celebrity edition of Weakest Link, and has just finished a novel, hopefully to be published later this year. But otherwise, Turner says, having a sister more famous than you is not a problem.

“Being triplets as children, we were stared at anyway. We got on this route of opening three-screen cinemas in North London together with another set of triplets,” recalls Turner. Nowadays, she says, the pair still receive odd looks when they go out shopping together and agree to share a fitting room cubicle. “The assistants look at us and you can tell they’re thinking, ‘They’re going to go in and then eight of them will come out’.”

Perhaps that is KLegal’s latest growth strategy – Aldous Huxley, eat your heart out.
Catrin Turner