Simon Olswang: My story

This article was contributed by Olswang founder, Simon Olswang

Following on from this week’s article, ‘Who sank the good ship Olswang’, The Lawyer’s editor has kindly allowed me some personal observations.

My firm became Olswang in 1990 when we moved from W1 to 90 Long Acre. It was this move, coupled with the name change, which really put us on the map.

olswang
Simon Olswang

I have always believed that a business leader has two responsibilities – to build the firm and to ensure effective succession after he or she retires. Of these the latter is the most challenging.

In 1997 I did not step down. Although still comparatively young, I recognised that seventeen years of leading the firm as founding partner was enough – for the firm and for me. I became chairman. This allowed the partnership to appoint a team of three, Mark Devereux as senior partner, Jonathan Goldstein in the newly created role of CEO and Kevin Munslow, as CFO/COO, to run the firm. They had my complete confidence.

Mark had been with me since the day he qualified which was also Day One of the firm. Kevin had been my personal accountant until I persuaded him to join us.  Whilst, some years before, as a young lawyer Jonathan had bravely come from SJ Berwin, recognising in the still emerging Simon Olswang & Co a firm that would allow him to rise rapidly through the ranks to establish his well-deserved “wunderkind” reputation.

This rather corporate division of roles worked well. The firm continued to fly, perhaps even better than before whilst, my job done, I was able to develop other interests which in 2002 enabled me to retire still quite young from Olswang and the law.

Two other points if I may.

In any discussion of the firm’s history Kevin Munslow also deserves a mention.

Throughout my and Jonathan’s time a hidden strength of the firm was its financial discipline. We ran a tight ship. Debt was unknown. At a time when the finances of other law firms were often less effectively managed, this enabled us to attract and retain really good people. Much of this was down to Kevin. It was no coincidence that he too left after Jonathan.

I was intrigued by Jonathan’s mention that he did not need to do partner appraisals because he knew what everyone was doing. I came to understand that regular appraisals were valuable as much for the appraiser as for the appraised. The appraised value the opportunity to match their view of themselves against the view of management. Whilst, if the appraisal is well conducted (upwards as well as downwards, or “360 degrees” in contemporary business speak), management can learn much of what partners in the firm are really thinking.

Perhaps therein lie some seeds of what was to come. My only real sadness is that, for all their success with the law practice, Jonathan and Mark were not able to put in place effective succession management – an altogether far harder task, the absence of which led directly to The Lawyer’s story.

Who sank the good ship Olswang?