Law: And then he tipped ice over his head

Robert Palache, the lawyer with the wacky reputation, is changing jobs.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The trouble is, law is a young person's profession - the hours means that it can be tough, both physically and mentally," admits the forty-year old "showman" securitisation lawyer, Robert Palache, who is leaving London's largest law firm Clifford Chance - and the law - to become an investment banker with Japanese investment bank Nomura International. However, it is highly unlikely that the working culture there will be less stressful. He says: "I'm not leaving for the easy life - this will be a big, big challenge."

Apart from a stint with Citibank on secondment from Clifford Chance, Palache has been with one law firm for 18 years, and is acknowledged as a securitisation expert's expert. His move is unusual in that most lawyers who join the business world stay lawyers - this includes Clifford Chance's former managing partner, Geoffrey Howe , who is now in-house counsel at Robert Fleming. Palache explains that being a lawyer no longer means joining as a young boy and leaving as a grey old man: "There are more moves out of law and also back in, which can only be a good thing for the profession and for business."

But there is probably also an element of fortysomething angst in Palache's decision. He says the offer from the headhunters to switch came at the right time.

His contemporaries and rivals see it as a logical move for him as he has "gone as far as he can or wants to go as a lawyer". He will be crossing the divide and will be in a position to pick and choose which law firms and lawyers Nomura will use.

Palache says that he has received congratulations from a number of other law firms, including a former colleague at the US firm, Weil Gotshal & Manges, but none from Freshfields or Allen & Overy - "I can only assume they are on holiday. And in the week when City law firm Slaughter and May has been reported as being the most profitable law firm, I also received calls from two of its partners congratulating me - that was pretty quick off the mark."

He will not be drawn on the subject of the money he will be on at Nomura. But the move will mean a change both of culture and in the numbers of people he will be running. At Clifford Chance, he is managing 360 lawyers, as well as doing legal work, but at Nomura, where he will be a director and joint head of securitisations in the Principal Finance Group, he will head a group of 10. But as one current colleague comments: "He is leaving one big group of big fee earners to head a group of even bigger fee earners."

Palache's life has had its own share of challenges. His ancestors emigrated to England in the late 19th century, and he is the product of a Dutch Jewish father and an Eastern European mother. He was the first in his family to go to university and studied law at Magdalene College, Cambridge, before applying to a number of law firms in the City.

He remembers his first interview, where he sat on a stool at one end of the room, while "the first question which the three elderly gentlemen in large armchairs asked was `what does your father do?'."

As Palache recalls, his father had just started driving a minicab because his restaurant had gone bust, so he just mumbled, guessing that this information was probably unlikely to impress the panel, or get him a job offer from the firm.

His next interview was at Coward Chance (which later merged with Clifford Turner to become Clifford Chance) where one of the interviewing panel was the partner who is now senior partner, Keith Clark. Palache says that the firm seemed much more light-hearted and less stuffy, so he cancelled the other appointments as soon as he got the job offer.

He qualified in 1981, and was working in the area of finance where not just companies, but countries such as Rumania and Nigeria, had to have their debts reorganised - it was a matter of being in the right place at a very lucrative and creative time for lawyers and other professional advisers. Palache became a partner in 1988, rising to managing partner of the firm's finance practice in 1995.

But his steady rise at the firm did not prevent the growth of his "wacky" reputation. The showmanship is the legal equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. He is known for saving deals from disaster by wandering in at the last minute and coming up with a solution written on the back of an envelope. Another tale doing the rounds is when, with minutes to go to the closing of a multi-million deal, and no sign of the money being released, Palache poured an ice bucket over his head (which certainly stimulated the brain cells) scribbled an opinion on a fax, and that got the money moving immediately.

And as another former colleague, Allen & Overy partner Mark Raines, comments: "He is certainly larger than life, and if a firm the size and depth of Clifford Chance couldn't hold him, no law firm could. When lawyers get bored with doing deals, they generally go to a bank, and if you are going to a bank, then you may as well go to one of the highest rollers."

When queried about being something of a showman, Palache says that it comes from developing communication skills to help people understand what is being said, and "make it a bit of fun, because it can be incredibly dull. It's important to remember that it is only business - it's not like being a nurse or doctor where someone may die - it is important to treat it with a sense of irony."

Palache will, however, admit that he gets the style of showmanship from Monty Python - which will no doubt prove useful now that he will be doing something completely different.