Julia Cahill meets Salans’ Barry Mordsley, the man who lured Peter Cooke from Theodore Goddard after the firms’ merger talks collapsed

Salans’ London employment head Barry Mordsley is wondering whether letting a journalist into the building this week was a wise move. “My partners told me not to do this,” he confides. But as his role also includes firm discipline, one can assume he won’t get into too much trouble.

Mordsley is the unlikely character suddenly at the centre of some inter-law firm controversy. High-profile is something Salans is not, but when it hits the headlines, boy is there a good tale to tell. This time it was the revelation that the former managing partner of Salans’ runaway bride Theodore Goddard would be joining Mordsley’s practice along with a fellow employment partner.

For those in need of a quick bluffers guide, talks between Salans and Theodores finally broke down after some four months in September last year. Salans itself is the product of mergers in London and New York with French firm Salans Hertzfeld & Heilbronn in the late 1990s. More than 40 of its 113 partners are in Paris. Its other defining feature is a major presence in Poland, Russia and the CIS.

As for London, expansion is still very much on Salans’ mind. For the moment, Mordsley has to dodge the issue of the imminent arrival of Peter Cooke and Jane Bullen from Theodores. But having grown the firm’s London employment practice from scratch in 13 years, he is clearly eager for a bigger London resource. “There are some very good client bases across the firm. One reason for expansion is the need to tap those client bases,” he says. “Employment is regarded as a major discipline. We do plan to expand in terms of partners and assistants.”

When we meet, Mordsley is just back from lunch with the first lady of employment law, Simmons & Simmons’ Janet Gaymer. She is clearly a fan. “Barry is a very much respected employment lawyer whose skills are not sufficiently widely known. He hides his light under a bushel. He has made an invaluable but not often recognised contribution to the field.” The two joined the Law Society’s Employment Law Committee at the same time 12 years ago and have been good friends ever since.

By then, Mordsley had spent the first 17 years of his post-qualification career in academia, with posts at London Guildhall University, Cornell University in the US and London University’s Queen Mary and Westfield College. He hasn’t lost his passion for the subject or the practice. “I was always absolutely fascinated by labour law. It has that intellectual fascination married to a human side. Dealing with people is such an important aspect of the job. I would find it very difficult to be a backroom boy.”

Mordsley is a lawyer known for his very personal service and as a Chelsea season ticket holder, he has that salt of the earth quality of a born and bred Londoner.

Back in his student days at the London School of Economics, it was Lord Wedderburn’s lectures that got Mordsley hooked on labour law at a time of massive upheaval in UK industrial relations. “Labour law was right at the cross roads at the time,” he says. While Mordsley was studying for his LLB, the Donovan report on trade unions and employers’ associations was being hammered out. Various attempts to modernise the system of collective laissez faire were made, including the ill-fated Industrial Relations Act of 1971. “To do that course with Wedderburn was absolutely wonderful,” says Mordsley. “It was a very exciting time.” It was perhaps not quite so exciting when Mordsley had to hand deliver his own wedding invitations because of the Post Office strike in February 1971, but he still smiles at the memory.

Mordsley combined his own academic career with building up a private practice and became a part-time chairman of employment tribunals in the mid-1980s. For 30 days a year you’ll still find him sitting at Watford or Bedford. “I enjoy it personally and as far as the firm is concerned it’s a very good marketing tool. It also gets me information on all the latest developments,” he says.

Mordsley joined Salans’ UK merger partner Harris Rosenblatt & Kramer in 1989 at the insistence of Roger Abrahams, now the firm’s global managing partner. The pair had earlier talked about setting up their own firm together.

“Roger nagged me to death to join,” says Mordsley. “At the time I was apprehensive about going to a large City firm because I was coming from my own firm.” With just seven partners back then, Harris Rosenblatt looked like a good alternative. Let’s face it, Salans is something of an anomaly, but Mordsley is glad he came. “Salans is an informal and unstuffy place to be.” The same could be said of Mordsley himself. “We all have a sense of humour. We have a good laugh,” he says.

Mordsley clearly prefers to take a back seat when it comes to firm management. He is full of passion for the job but reveals a touch of disdain for the growing need to compete on administrative efficiencies. He admits to being rather shocked when a client recently complained that he still hadn’t been billed.

The London employment practice, which has one other partner, is an eclectic mix. A rundown of Mordsley’s top clients includes City traders Goldenberg Hehmeyer, Servier Pharmaceuticals, State Street Bank, computer group Parity and Lloyds TSB. On the down side, National Grid was a recent loss brought on by the departure of its HR director. “His replacement has her own favourites that she uses,” says Mordsley, but he is well-used to relationships fluctuating in this way.

The practice is almost exclusively employer-based. There is no particular industry or area focus, but it is particularly well known for executive severance, discrimination, unfair dismissal and general corporate and partnership issues. Only around 15 per cent of the practice is corporate support.

Mordsley has just won a client £3,000 in costs in a tribunal case brought by an employee who was dismissed by the client for lateness. It’s a significant award in such a case. “Tribunals are now beginning to award costs where they wouldn’t have done before. There is a climate of change towards penalising employees who bring weak cases,” he says.

Between practising, chairing tribunals and hiring partners from Theodores, Mordsley remains a prolific writer. A recent paper for the International Bar Association (IBA) tackled the issue of religious discrimination and he has made major contributions to the Law Society’s reports on disability and age discrimination. He has just been appointed vice chair of the IBA’s discrimination law committee. “Sometimes I do sleep,” he says. And with that he is hurrying off to meet a client.

Barry Mordsley
Partner and employment head