Keep on keepin’ on

Head of Weil Gotshal & Manges’ London office Mike Francies remains philosophical about the glut of departures that has hit the US firm

Mike Francies’ main worry last week was whether he would fit into his suit for his son’s barmitzvah. Not how, as head of Weil Gotshal & Manges’ London office, he was going to replace the three partners and at least three assistants from the capital markets team who handed in their notice 10 days ago to go to Ashurst Morris Crisp (The Lawyer, 26 March).

After all, as he points out, that week was not the worst he has experienced at Weil Gotshal. Last year, the office lost its joint head Maurice Allen to White & Case (The Lawyer, 31 January 2000) and then watched as 14 of his colleagues followed, leaving the office devoid of an asset finance capability. Then head of banking James Chesterman decided that rebuilding the team was more than he could cope with – at least, according to Francies – and left for Latham & Watkins.

So all in all it was not the best of years for Francies or for the firm’s London team, and the latest partner defections – Erica Handling, Kate Lamburn and Siân Withey – must be another tiring blow; but also, says Francies, not entirely unexpected.

He is well aware that the office failed to get across its PR message that it was going to bounce back, so Francies is eager to have his say this time. Of course, it is not easy to win the battle in the press when your PR head decides to leave too, Susannah Pearson opting to follow Allen to White & Case.

So why has virtually the whole capital markets team – there are two assistants who have pledged to stay and one who, at the moment, is unsure – decided to go? The partners have stated that they wanted to be able to expand their practice within the arena of a larger office, but what of the assistants? “They felt a loyalty to the partner,” says Francies. “As a group, they’ve kept together through all the things that have happened over the last year. We’ve told them what their future is here, and they’ve got to do what they want to do.”

Selecting his words carefully , Francies adds: “I don’t want to put this in a funny way, but within the firm they’re good lawyers and a good team, and I think they could have done better in a big firm environment. You have to be a bit more dynamic and self-centred here. Compared with one of the best banking teams [Allen’s] in the City leaving, the blow’s not so great.”

Francies intimates that many in the firm expected the team to follow Allen last year and so the departures had an air of inevitability about them. Partners Jackie Kelly and Christian Smith remain in the London office covering securitisation, and Francies says that no one is rushing about tearing out their hair.

Following Allen’s bombshell, the office went through a stage in the doldrums, as Francies freely admits. He says, though, that morale is much higher now. “We had a group that wasn’t sure whether they wanted to be in the firm. Their leaving was not the way that I wanted to raise morale, but it worked. Morale’s pretty good now. We’ve come from an incredible year when we grew from 80 to 120 lawyers, but nearly 30 have left. We’ve had a better year in terms of financial matters and we beat our original budgets, leaving people feeling good by the end of the year.”

Francies is thinking on his feet about the various departures. While he uses last year’s departures as the yardstick to judge the relative insignificance of Erica Handling’s team going, half way through the interview, when asked whether the office has fully recovered from that episode, Francies tries to play down the banking team’s exit. “In terms of business, there was nothing to recover from,” he says. “It was really a perception issue. The perception was that we were going through a crisis, but the only crisis was a PR one in terms of clients. We went from strength to strength and now there’ll be a mini PR crisis again, but our real focus is not on PR, it’s on our clients and people.”

The firm is building up the finance practice again and hopes to launch an insolvency arm and expand its technology capability from the current five-strong team. Francies also wants to return to the original idea behind the office – sticking to certain areas and not trying to be everything to everyone. He is also adamant that the office will continue to be choosy about who it hires. Unlike many other US firms’ London offices, Francies does not have any headcount goal and claims that the office has turned down several big names in recent months who have gone on to make headlines for other firms. But he has to ensure that the laterals are right for the firm and that they are not just there to build up their own practice to then take it somewhere else.

Francies describes the office’s character as “eclectic”, and then, recalling The Lawyer’s interview with Slaughter and May‘s Stephen Cooke a week ago (26 March), says that he, like Cooke, believes his office is a fun place to work. Aware perhaps of how this may look in print, Francies hurriedly stresses that he is not comparing Weil Gotshal to the doyen of the London legal scene.

When Allen left, the rumour mill had it that his departure was partly due to a personality clash with Francies. One source in the market describes the two men as chalk and cheese, with Francies looking after the details while Allen was the visionary. So do the two still keep in touch? After a pause, Francies says “no”, in a way that suggests he knows exactly what people will make of that but is unable to lie about it.

“I think I was disappointed in that I’d joined to build up something with him,” says Francies cagily on his reaction to Allen’s exit. “The idea was to have a strong finance practice and corporate practice feeding off each other like at Allen & Overy. It meant that a chapter closed. It was such an emotional time, I felt numb.”

The other reason given for Allen’s exit was tension between London and the US, with Allen wanting more autonomy for his office. Francies claims that he never noticed that relations were strained, but for the record says: “I think that we’re an international firm, but you must not forget that our business is based in the US. If we don’t take advantage of that then we’re just 130 lawyers in London. I think the great thing is that we’re finally cross-selling with the US.”

The current revenue sources for the office, says Francies, show that it has sent a profit back to the US since 1998, and that 48 per cent of billing originates from servicing clients in the US, with the rest coming from clients of the London office.

And finally, on the subject of billing, it is something that Francies is obviously fonder of than management. He is, according to a source close to the firm, a nice man with too much on his plate. Others say that he can be changeable and moody. To me he seems the former, a man who has taken some of the blows suffered by the office to heart and is bemused as to why people have decided to leave. He says, when asked whether he is still enjoying his job, that it is an experience that he never expected to have. He leaves the question open as to whether it is an enjoyable one.
Mike Francies
Head of London office
Weil Gotshal & Manges