Think global

Spend two hours in Steven Fogel’s office and you’ll become acutely aware of two vastly different personas. There is Fogel the man – tie swiftly removed, collapsible bike in the corner, daughter’s art work on the walls – and Fogel the manager – inseparable from his BlackBerry palm pilot, one of only two London partners on Dechert’s worldwide policy committee and having nightly chats with its chairman Barton Winokur. There can be no ignoring Fogel’s fluffier side: the same old collection of beach-combed relics is arranged on his table, despite frequent ribbing; and at the end of our interview, he tentatively asks whether he gave away too much. But, after tea and biscuits, you too would probably leave with the irrepressible feeling that, as a manager, this rather genial man takes no prisoners.

“For a lot of the time I feel I’m quite controlled – not controlling – doing this job. Privately it’s different,” admits the partner who two years ago steered Titmuss Sainer through what was only the second US-UK law firm merger.

Today, Fogel remains at the London helm at a crucial stage in the integration process with merger partner Dechert Price & Rhoads. On top of this, Dechert has just opened in Germany, will launch in San Francisco in October and has taken a high-profile New York real estate team out of Thacher Proffitt & Wood. “We’re definitely at a building stage at the moment,” says Fogel.

It has been a managerially intensive two years. “I see myself sometimes as translating US to UK and UK to US. I’m probably more absorbed [in the merger] than any other partner in the UK,” he says.

Thanks to a clause in the merger agreement, this summer provided the earliest opportunity to replace Fogel in the non-elected post of London managing partner. But he has held tight, notwithstanding some recent turmoil in the London property department. He says that the opportunity to replace him was not even considered. “I continue to be London managing partner at the pleasure of my partners and the chairman,” he says. Sounds rather like a prison sentence, but when we meet Fogel is full of enthusiasm.

Right now he is engrossed in his latest management project as chair of one of three new committees set up in July to conduct Dechert’s first post-merger strategic review.

The new committees are split into strategy, governance and core values. Curiously, Fogel is leading the most US-sounding of the lot, with US partners leading on strategy and governance. “It’s very democratic. There’s a willingness to share,” he is at pains to emphasise, and then by way of explanation for his own role says: “I don’t think it’s because we in the UK have any particular expertise in values. It may have been felt that, because I was an outsider in the sense that I was not a Dechert Price person, I’d be able to comment from the other side.”

So does he feel like an outsider? Absolutely not. “Sitting on the policy committee I’m immersed all the time in US as well as UK problems,” he says.

The webcam fixed on top of Fogel’s PC seems to back him up. Any implication that Titmuss Sainer was taken over in 2000, he adds, is “emotionally uncomfortable” for him. And it is a point he returns to again and again.

“I can see that if one firm has more people in it than another, it’s ostensibly a takeover; but below the surface, that doesn’t respect the sheer effort that goes on to achieve integration. ‘Takeover’ is just an emotive word. It sounds as if there’s been a surrender of values and some distant person is telling you how you have to practise law.”

Fogel argues that Titmuss Sainer’s US deal was just as favourable as that struck more recently by Rowe & Maw with Mayer Brown & Platt. At Dechert, Europe gets two seats on the 13-strong policy committee with the possibility of a third on election. At almost twice the size of Titmuss Sainer when it merged, Rowe & Maw negotiated three UK voting seats and one participatory seat on the Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw management board. It did, however, keep its name.

“The whole Titmuss Sainer brand has been taken over, there is no doubt about that. But in terms of what it feels like, I’m practising law in an international firm and sharing in the structure,” says Fogel.

So despite two recent departures – Chris Edwards to Charles Russell and Edward Bannister to Field Fisher Waterhouse – and the loss of one retail client, which seemed to suggest otherwise, Dechert’s London property practice isn’t interested only in building out its finance arm in line with the US. “What we try to do is talk about those elements in the retail practice that make sense to be done in a City environment, and those that don’t,” says Fogel.

He cites new work for Land Securities’ retail warehouse portfolio as evidence of the firm’s ongoing commitment to real estate.

At the same time, Fogel is acutely aware of the unique stake his position as London managing partner gives him in all of this. There is room, he accepts, for much more London partner involvement.

Inextricably linked to that problem is one crucial question being addressed by the current review. It is one that any international firm will recognise: “Whether or not our emphasis is at the level of individual offices, or on creating worldwide practice groups.”

Fogel continues: “We’re actually running the business on the basis of two axes – the offices and the practice groups – and there is usually a creative tension between the two of them.” Where his preference lies comes as no great shock: “I suspect that we’ll have more and more done by practice groups and be more focused on specific practice areas.” Happily for Fogel, one of those areas is closest to his own heart – namely, real estate. He may not spend as much time in the deal room as he would like, but Fogel hasn’t forgotten his roots, and this year became the first lawyer to chair the International Property Federation.

The other practice area for Dechert is the financial services and investment management practice. Also on the list, but less developed internationally as yet, are corporate and litigation. Dechert’s massive US litigation practice has done much to carry the firm through the downturn.

Fogel hopes that this ongoing integration process will be the making of the Dechert merger. “My long-term goal is to involve more and more partners throughout the world, and from London in particular, in this structure. If your strategy moves towards a practice group structure and away from an office structure, it makes it much more likely that you’ll achieve that. The balance will also change with more European offices,” he says.

How much more time is needed to complete the review will be up for discussion this week, when a bunch of US partners fly into London. Then comes the all-important stage of getting ‘buy-in’ from the rest of the partnership. Dechert votes on constitutional matters, but not on strategy. “We’ve got to have the sense that a large majority of people is supportive,” says Fogel. “You can’t get too far ahead of your partners. You have to take small steps; that way, you don’t use up your credit with your partners.”

He can’t have gone too far into the red yet. Three London partners opted out before the merger went through, but since then only five have left, including one post-merger lateral. The partner headcount is now 48, including recent hires John Gordon from Nomura and James Croock from Linklaters.

Fogel is eager for more growth. “Nothing gives you greater pleasure in a management job than bringing really good people in,” he says. “I think that because we merged with a firm that was more profitable than us, it creates pressure, which can in turn lead to anxiety; but nonetheless there is creative pressure to do better. Because we’re noticed more and mentioned more because we’re larger, we can get better people, who in turn do better.”

But the standard criticism levelled at Dechert by outsiders remains: the merger, they say, has not translated into greater visibility on the City’s larger deals.

“There is an element of truth in that,” Fogel concedes. “The London office is regularly doing a lot of work for a great many clients. We’d like to move it towards doing more headline deals.”

So, does he ever think he is deluded in his ambition? “I don’t delude myself that it’s hard. It takes a long time to get people in place and win the confidence of your partners worldwide,” he says.

He adds that the importance of winning that confidence and cultivating the social interaction to enable international partners to go out and hunt for work together must not be underestimated. He admits to having the odd dark moment of the soul, when the task at hand seems impossible, but the ‘can do’ attitude of his US colleagues is apparently something of a tonic.

He is also getting a better night’s sleep than in the old Titmuss Sainer days. “When we were a medium-sized firm I felt that the situation was uncomfortable. In the long run it would have been difficult to sustain. I had some room for optimism about Titmuss Sainer being independent, but it didn’t seem to be the most comfortable of options. I used to lie awake thinking about that.”

Now, Fogel the manager is learning to defer some of his worries. “Your instinct as a lawyer is to believe you can do it all. But experience indicates that you can get a better result if you share decision-making. It also means that you can sleep better at night.”
Steven Fogel
London managing partner