FFW managing partner Chissick: Back to the future

Field Fisher Waterhouse managing partner Michael Chissick has been in the top job for a little more than a year but is about to embark on a period of change as his firm thinks once more about the future.

Michael Chissick
Michael Chissick

Failed merger talks, ego clashes and management changes have kept Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) looking backward instead of forward for too long. Managing partner Michael Chissick stepped into the top role a year ago and is now on a mission to get the firm moving forward again.

“Some perceive us as a little outdated, but I’d tell them to take another look at us in six months’ time,” Chissick says brazenly.

There is a rebrand in the pipeline timed to coincide with an office move to Swan Lane in EC4, both happening as the firm looks to integrate with its Manchester bolt-on, Heatons. It feels as if FFW is looking to reinvigorate some of the energy that surrounded it pre-2008, when all seemed rosy and the economy was in growth mode.

Back then, before the collapse of Lehman, the bail-out of Northern Rock and the disappearance of Woolworths, FFW had some lofty ambitions.

Sources suggest the firm wanted to grow its turnover from £88m to £200m.

Looking back, Chissick knows now that the bar had been set too high, but suggests FFW wasn’t the only firm chasing dreams.

“Before the 2008 market crash we took on too much space in London with expectations of growth that, like many firms, did not materialise,” he says.

Six years on and the ambitions have been curtailed somewhat, with the firm looking to reach the £100m mark for the first time in 2013/14.

It could have been nearer to the £200m mark if it had pulled off game-changing mergers with Lawrence Graham, abandoned mid 2012 (28 June 2012), or Osborne Clarke, which were called off a few months later (14 November 2012).

Instead the firm has been dogged by clashes over partnership changes, typified by the undignified exit of Mark Abell last February (1 February 2013). Abell, then head of IP and IT, quit for Bird & Bird and in response the firm suspended him, stating that it “protects the interests” of the firm.

Chissick moved from being acting chief to take on the managing partner role in full just a few days later, with then managing partner Matthew Lohn becoming senior partner (4 February 2013).

It’s little wonder that Chissick wants to put the past behind him and focus on the future.

The move and rebrand, he says, equates to “almost the creation of a brand new firm”.

The new office, like it or not, is a downsizing exercise aimed at cutting costs. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. Many firms are looking at ways to cut overheads and reduce office space. Flexi-working plans is one method of doing just that.

Currently the firm’s City practice spans two buildings – one on Vine Street and the other at Ibex House in the Minories – covering a combined 120,000 sq ft. The firm is thought to have shelled out more than £4.7m for the space in 2011/12.

It is cutting floor space by almost a third to 82,000 sq ft, at £50 per sq ft, for its new riverside premises, totting up to a reduced total of about £4.1m, a saving of £600,000.

There will be some investment, “wireless headsets and large dual monitors for our fee-earners,” says Chissick, enthusiastically.

“There will be a real focus on visual communications with heavy use of Skype-style engagement with clients and internally,” he continues. “We can’t reveal too much yet, but we’ll be installing technology that no other law firm is currently using.”

All this is expected to have a positive result on the firm’s bottom line.

“We’ll make decent savings,” Chissick says. “We’ve had to pay a break fee and fit-out cost but ultimately our yearly outgoings will be less and it’ll lift profits, to some extent.”

Sources suggest that the new office will be far more suited to FFW’s size than its current premises, which houses a considerable amount of empty space. And while the firm has been on a hiring spree of late, that doesn’t plug the gap caused by those trickling the other way.

In 2013, the firm made 11 lateral hires. Companies House reveals that during the same period, 17 partners left FFW, including a trio of franchising partners – Abell went with partners Graeme Payne and Victoria Hobbs to Bird & Bird (8 May 2013).

Chissick has no intention of replacing the diminished franchising team, once percieved to be the firm’s crowning glory, choosing instead to focus on areas such as privacy, technology and commercial IP.

Then there is the merger with eight-partner Manchester firm Heatons.

As part of the move, FFW’s single partner in Manchester – public and regulatory group head Sarah Ellson – has moved into Heatons’ office, where the firm is in the process of taking further space in its building in anticipation of further growth (7 February 2014).

“Manchester is an interesting market,” muses Chissick. “Firms like Halliwells and Cobbetts went under and there’s been a lot of movement there. It’s an exciting hub for life sciences, technology and the media.”

Chissick has set out his stall as a managing partner dead set on change. Will a rebrand, cost-cutting and growth away from the City be enough?

FFW in figures
  2012/13 2011/12 2010/11 2009/10 2008/09
Revenue (£m) 95 97.5 94 92 64.9
PEP 402,000 410,000 510,000 476,000 515,000
Total global partners 146.4 146.89 138 128 124