Propped up against the corner window of Keith Clark’s office is a carved chieftain’s stick from the Songye tribe in Zaire. Quite appropriate, as since 1993 Clark has been the head honcho in the legal world’s most prolific tribe – that of Clifford Chance. But now in a move that has genuinely surprised the market, he has announced that at the beginning of next year he will be taking his stick down the road to Morgan Stanley.
The move is all the more surprising because Clark has become the face of Clifford Chance – the big man running the big firm. In the photos that accompanied last year’s audacious merger with both Rogers & Wells and Pünder Volhard Weber & Axster his size is emphasised by the slight stature of Rogers & Well’s Larry Cranch.
When we meet, Clark is in an ebullient mood, leaning back in his seat as if in a deckchair, hands folded behind his head. He laughs loudly and often, the laugh of a man who is guaranteed that others will join in.
While Clark can see why his decision to move on might come as a surprise to the outside world, he says that it was carefully coordinated and thought through. He has seen the merger through, put in place all the systems to ensure that the marriage does not fail on bad communication and now is ready for the next challenge.
Although he is leaving a few months before his term as chairman ends, this will, he says, open the way to a wider governance review with no pesky incumbents blocking the sights.
“Over the course of the last few months I have been going over in my own mind what would be the right thing to do. Morgan Stanley came through and said there is this job. It’s a great organisation and a new world of opportunities and I am still a young man.”
Clark throws me a defiant glance with the last statement as if I am about to argue that he’s an old codger, a statement which would firstly not be true and secondly would be terribly ill-bred.
The job that Morgan Stanley has for Clark is international general counsel. He will also sit on the company’s six-strong European executive committee. This will see him responsible for international legal function within the investment bank. It is quite a sweet irony that Clark is now off to join one of the banks that inspired Clifford Chance’s course towards world domination.
I put it to Clark that, as rumour has it, he nearly left once before to join Freshfields. He answers carefully: “I didn’t consider leaving for Freshfields. The best years of my life have been spent in this place and I am very proud to be associated with it.” Read into that what you will, but he doesn’t laugh at the suggestion. (Sources close to both firms suggest that this tale is more than an urban myth and that the situation arose out of Clark’s annoyance at a section of the partnership.)
No one would doubt that Clark, whether one likes him or not, would have been a huge loss to Clifford Chance. He is universally acknowledged as the main driver behind the tripartite mergers of last year, a visionary who has ‘made the right things happen’. If necessary, he is willing to play rough to achieve the right result – at the time of the Clifford Turner/Coward Chance merger vote, he had primed his banking colleagues at the latter firm to go ahead with joining Clifford Turner if the rest of the partnership voted against. Of course, once this was known, the merger had to go ahead. He also managed to persuade a largely sceptical partnership that it should shack up with Roger & Wells.
Given his vast contribution to Clifford Chance, it is ironic that for a while, after standing unsuccessfully for both managing and senior partner, he was seen as unelectable because he was a banking man. Alongside his management duties, Clark has managed to keep a hand in the rescheduling work for which he is well known, most recently helping to sort out the financial messes in Russia and Indonesia. This is work that he has been involved in since the early 1980s and, according to one former Clifford Chance partner, was so well paid that Clark could bill in three months what others brought in annually, meaning that he had plenty of time for the management strategy side.
The chieftain’s stick is just one of a good handful of pieces of African art scattered around Clark’s office, which don’t really go, to be honest, with the splodgy pastel-patterned sofas. The wooden carvings were not picked by the firm’s art department, but are indicative of one of Clark’s passions in life which started back in the early 1970s when he went to see an exhibition of African art.
This blew him away and started a collection which has made a few London dealers very happy. It also saw the man, described by some as “a bit of a hippy”, spend five weeks living with tribes in Burkina Faso and Mali back in 1993.
At the time he was on a sabbatical prior to taking up his current position and it had always been his ambition to visit the Dogan tribe, whose art influenced the likes of Picasso and Matisse.
“We got on very well,” says Clark when I ask him what the tribes made of a City lawyer suddenly turning up. “The important thing was to make sure you were welcome. Whenever we approached a village we went to the chief who would call a meeting of the others to decide whether we were allowed to stay and on what terms.
“For example, we’d have to know where their sacred areas were and the areas where we weren’t allowed. And if you respected that you were a damn sight safer than walking down Oxford Street.”
He communicated with the tribes in French but says that most of the time the international language of beer sufficed.
I ask him, tongue firmly in cheek, whether the experience helped him in the subsequent merger negotiations. After laughing (again), he replies that he has a great respect for cultural differences.
Quirks of different markets have led to mutterings over the ‘flexible lockstep’ system put in place in the US which saw eight former Roger & Wells partners and one Italian partner from merger firm Grimaldi being paid more than the top of lockstep within the rest of the integrated firm. While most of those have now agreed to come into lockstep, two Americans (Kevin Arquit and Steven Newborn) and Mr Grimaldi himself have refused to cut their paypackets.
After all, once you are on $2.5m as Arquit is, it would be very difficult to make ends meet if you were forced to come down to $1m. Lord only knows how you would support a family on that paltry amount.
But Clark refuses to see the situation as a problem. “Those are the conditions if you are going to retain and incentivise people in a marketplace like New York and Italy.” And he is not worried that the firm might face an uprising from the top billers in London demanding that they should be on a flexible structure too.
Clark’s jaw sets and he replies that the market conditions in London do not demand such a move.
So what will he miss about Clifford Chance? Obviously those he has worked alongside for the last 30 years, but he will not be missing the gruelling travel. For the last year he has been based out of New York and estimates that before that he spent around 50 per cent of his time abroad.
Although he will not be tucking away his passport while at Morgan Stanley, the scale of the travelling, which he says has got harder with age, should be reduced. Not that he is an old man, you understand.
But neither is the Morgan Stanley post some sort of pre-retirement wind down. “My garden has enough flowers in it,” he says. Perhaps he’ll be able to revisit the Dogan tribe to share a bevvy, talk about tribal diplomacy and expansion and acquire a few headrests to replace the sofa.
International general counsel