Slaughters competition veteran Malcolm Nicholson is as unique as the firm he works for. And as Helen Power reports, it certainly hasn’t done him any harm

Malcolm Nicholson may be the grandaddy of competition law, but when it comes to getting his photo taken he is like a recalcitrant five-year-old. Although Slaughter and May must have spent a fortune on feng shui experts for its stylish Oriental atrium, Nicholson tries to have his photo taken in a room with prefabricated walls and no windows.

The sole possible appeal of the room, confirmed by a Slaughters receptionist, is that nobody will be able to see Nicholson posing for the camera. The receptionist cannot understand it: “He’s a handsome enough chap,” she says. Certainly, Nicholson looks trim and not desperately in need of the weekend at a health farm his wife wants him to take with her. Finally we persuade him into an open space for the photo, but he still looks as if he is backing away from the camera.

The reason for his diffidence comes out later. “We don’t take hostages here,” Nicholson claims. “We don’t put people on pedestals, we take the mickey out of people the whole time.” He is clearly expecting a fair amount of stick over this piece, although probably not as much as he got when his name appeared in The Sunday Times Rich List earlier this year.

Before the rich list, which Nicholson was absolutely apoplectic about, the Slaughters partner was best known for his victory against the European Commission (EC) in Airtours. He was the man who almost singlehandedly beat down the EC at the height of its powers, giving the UK’s more Europhobic lawyers a great opportunity to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude.

He did not exactly start life as the EC’s nemesis though – his early professional life was that of a prototype Europhile. Nicholson was one of the first people to take up a postgraduate scholarship to study at Brussels University when our European friends relented and let us join the European Economic Community in the 1970s.

Back in the UK, Nicholson joined the Slaughters cult, and the rest, as they say, is history. He started out as a generic corporate bod, but decided to specialise after three years; basically, he has now been a competition lawyer for about as long as competition law has existed.

Recently, Nicholson has handled some of the biggest cases around, including Abbey National’s regulatory defence against Lloyds’ unwelcome advances two years ago and Royal Caribbean’s failed merger with cruiseline rival Carnival. Nicholson might officially be king of the hill, but as you would expect, Slaughters’ antitrust department is star-studded.

He is constantly at pains to point out that the whole team deserves credit and he in fact shared Abbey National and Royal Caribbean with two other partners – Betrtand Louveaux and Philippe Chappatte. However, Nicholson claims that they do not fight over who gets what. “Whatever comes through the door, I do. I’m not proud,” he says.

“There’s something of a natural horses for courses approach that manifests itself in dealing with some clients,” claims Nicholson. “Some clients are better suited to some of the lawyers than others, and it’s a matter of personal chemistry as much as anything.”

Airtours is clearly one of Nicholson’s favourite clients. The City perception of Airtours (now MyTravel) is that the company was stubborn, obsessed, slightly bonkers, but ultimately right to take on the EC. (Probably better not to speculate over the synergies with Nicholson here.)

When Nicholson won, it was the first time that the European Court of First Instance had reversed an EC decision to block a merger. “It was effective in terms of bringing home to the merger taskforce that they’re not gods and that they don’t always get it right,” explains Nicholson. “They’re an efficient and effective team of administrators, but some of them, in their quieter moments, would accept that they needed to be reined in a bit.”

Most people would say that the EC was trying its luck on the Airtours merger, trying to extend its powers by introducing a new theory of collective dominance – something that has a lot of impact when one is trying to reduce the number of players in a sector from four to three. Nicholson took it personally, not least because he advised his client that the Airtours-First Choice merger would go through before the EC blocked it. “I don’t mind people being experimental on my turf,” he says, “so long as I persuade them into the paths of righteousness.”

The subsequent court ruling was a huge moral victory, but unfortunately for MyTravel it was a Pyrrhic one. The world had changed in the intervening years and MyTravel was more likely to be a takeover target for First Choice than the one doing the taking over. “It was terrific that we got a vindication of our original position,” says Nicholson. “It was just rather sad that it was two years later.”

By those outside the firm, Nicholson is considered an extremely demanding person to have on the other side of a merger, but it is highly unlikely that he will view this as negative – and by and large, neither do other lawyers. His stamina is legendary: apparently, after a 48-hour stint locked in a room on a fractious electricity privatisation, rather than wish for his bed, he turned to a colleague and said: “Oh, I do enjoy a good fight.”

Inside Slaughters he is a pretty popular guy. He currently sits on the firm’s little-known 10-strong management committee, which is elected by a system so bizarre and arcane that it could never have developed anywhere other than at Slaughters. The intricacies of constituency boundaries at the firm, to be honest, are lost on me, but it is clear that Nicholson fits in perfectly with the firm’s creed.

If God is an Englishman, and Slaughters the best law firm in the world, Nicholson is the archetypal old school Slaughters partner. He does not like talking about firm issues, but if there was a vote today on how the firm should respond to globalisation, it would be safe to say that Nicholson would not be leading the charge for a best friends merger.

“I’m pretty happy with our current position,” he says tersely. “It’s working well at the moment, although that isn’t to say that we should be complacent.” In fact, Nicholson would probably argue that the rest of the legal world has got it wrong. He says that one view he hears, even from friends at magic circle firms, is that “at Slaughters you’re still a partner in a way that you can’t be in a firm with offices all over the world. A number of other firms, or really a number of partners individually, regret the passing of that.”

Nicholson’s two-year term on the management board is up this May, but he has no immediate plans to retire, which will be good news for the competition group, where he is well liked. At Slaughters that group is known as the ‘lavender lounge’, although Nicholson claims not to be aware of this. Depending on who you talk to, the monikor is due to either the unusual prevalence of women in the department or that of a very well-known and very camp gay lawyer. Either way, it is a bit of a bunch of misfits. But somehow, Nicholson, gruffly charming and very Slaughters, fits in.

Malcolm Nicholson
Slaughters and May