The butcher boy

John Bundy, senior partner at Hextall Erskine, cannot see why I want to interview him – he is sure he is not that interesting.

False modesty, perhaps, but the reason why I want to interview him turns out not to be the reason why he is interesting.

The impetus for the chat is the recent departure of four partners from his firm amid concerns that the profitability of Hextall Erskine is too low to give people a reason to stay.

Head of insurance and reinsurance Bill Jarvis has joined Elborne Mitchell, professional indemnity lawyer Stuart White and fellow partner Davina Haydon joined Reynolds Porter Chamberlain at the end of March, while alternative dispute resolution partner Anna Dalglish has also left the firm, although she is believed to be quitting law altogether. Bundy says that a fifth is just about to leave from the same team, but he is not sure which firm he is moving to, just that it will not be Elborne Mitchell. Bundy, though, says that he is not shedding any tears over the losses.

“Profits have dipped, there’s no doubt about that.” Bundy begins the interview with this candid confession. “I don’t know if that’s the reason for people going, but when I analyse what the cause for lower profits might be, there’s an element of overpartnering and underperforming. Quite honestly, the partners were not busy enough.”

Blimey, that’s not what I expected at all. No fudging the issue there, then.

Bundy is not quite open enough to furnish me with exact figures as to the firm’s profitability at present, but he does tell me that margins have dropped by around 25 per cent over the last two years. He is confident now that with a reduced partnership, profits will be more or less back up to what they were.

The firm has also had to face the fact that it does not work well as an entity, says Bundy. Historically, Hextall Erskine was split into four departments: company/commercial, commercial conveyancing, matrimonial and tax. Within those there were two insurance departments, one covering international insurance and reinsurance work, the other called dispute resolution, which covered product liability and professional negligence.

“The last two should have been working very closely and they should have been complementing each other,” says Bundy. “In fact, there was a suppresser on the development of those areas because they weren’t working well together. I suppose there was a lowering of morale and a lack of enthusiasm, which leads to not a lot of cross-fertilisation.”

Whereas I expected to be able to take down the first part of the interview easily as Bundy spun the situation, following instructions from some marketing adviser, into the Land of Oz, I am now struggling to keep my shorthand up to speed to keep up with what Bundy is saying. He is obviously not from the Clinton school of press management.

But, of course, no managing partner will ever say that his firm is presently in a mess. Bundy says that he is confident that by combining the two insurance departments over the joint leadership of Nigel Plant and John Startin, enthusiasm has been restored. And no, Bundy volunteers, he is not rushing off to recruit anyone else.

Of course, profits are not helped by an increasingly harsh market within the insurance world, with pressure from the clients mounting on rates, but Bundy says that the firm is coping by turning its attentions to the international insurance market. “International business three to four years ago probably accounted for no more than 10 per cent of income, while today it’s 35 per cent,” he says. “Just this week, we’ve acquired a new international client, who I’m not able to disclose, so I’m really excited about that.”

Much of the international work comes from Hextall Erskine’s membership of the international Clausen Miller network. This accounts for around half of the international work that comes into the firm and presently covers the US, the UK, France and Italy, although the network plans to bring in Spanish and German firms, and possibly some that are non-European.

So how close is the relationship with members like Studio Legale Corapi and La Giraudière Larroze et Associés. “Their office is our office,” Bundy says. “I was in Chicago four weeks ago seeing our partners; I was in New York before Christmas, and two partners are almost permanently based in our offices from Corapi.”

The thought of jetting off around the world on a regular basis was not what Bundy thought he would be doing as a 16-year-old. With all due respect to Hextall Erskine and Bundy’s role there, which is undoubtedly interesting in itself, the Bundy aged 16 is much more fascinating.

Bundy left school with one O-level in geography, intending to join his father’s butchery business. I will pause briefly to allow you to make a couple of mental quips about lawyers and butchers. While he was on his post-school downtime, Bundy bumped into his cousin, who asked him what he was doing. “Not a lot,” was his answer, adding that his intention was to become a butcher.

Unfortunately for Bundy senior’s business, the cousin was a clerk at 12 King’s Bench Walk, and recommended that Bundy junior should follow him into the law. To encourage him, the cousin set up an interview with the managing clerk at Hextall Erskine, a formidable man named Cyril Bassey.

Bundy got the job, which consisted mostly of carrying Bassey’s briefcase and making tea, until one morning he arrived to find a cheque made out to a law school. Bassey told the young Bundy to drop it off and “fill out some forms there”. The cheque, drawn from Bassey’s personal bank account, covered the enrolment fee and first exam fees for Bundy’s legal executive examinations.

The young lad who had failed dismally at school suddenly got a taste for learning. He went on to qualify as a solicitor, and when he finally qualified, Hextall Erskine made him a partner.

Unfortunately, this heartwarming tale is slightly spoiled by Bundy’s admission that he has not seen the man who always called him “lad” in private, and he in turn always called Mr B, since the said gentleman finally retired three years ago, aged 76. Shame on you.

But Bundy’s background, he says, has made sure that he puts an emphasis on training within the firm. “I encouraged Andrew Nathan to do the same thing. He was a legal executive and is now a senior partner. We have secretaries that have gone on to become legal executives. I almost find it difficult to understand people who are content with what they’ve got. Why not go higher?”

As for the butchers, while Bundy senior tells his son now that he is delighted he has gone on to different things, Bundy junior says that at the time of his momentous decision things were different. When his father retired, the shop was sold.

Bundy has headed Hextall Erskine for three years now, but finally admitted a couple of months ago that he could not handle everything. So he brought in chief executive John Freeman from Radcliffes.

“I always spread myself far too thin,” he says. “I work hard, but I was beginning to feel that I was working harder than I ought.”

Now Bundy is hoping that he will be able to get back to his insurance litigation practice, which he loves. “12 March was going to herald the first trial that I’ve attended in three years,” sighs Bundy. “There was no way it was going to settle, and the day before the trial they collapsed and settled, so I didn’t get to court.

“I’ll have to learn about Woolf now. But I wonder if it might have pushed it too far. We’re now in a settlement culture, and I don’t know if enough cases are being fought. I hear insurers talking about costs of claims rising. Well, the costs of defending aren’t rising, but the number of claims being settled is definitely going up.”

Bundy seems to be a man itching to get back to fighting again.
John Bundy
Senior partner
Hextall Erskine