The Lowdown: Why legal rivals are lambs to Slaughter

Abigail Townsend talks to Nigel Boardman, the star solicitor for corporate deals
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The Independent Online

veryone has an opinion about lawyers. Deal going on for ages? Blame the lawyers. Too complex? Blame the lawyers. Fees associated with deal left you out of pocket? Definitely blame the lawyers.

But they'd better well be there when we need them. Indeed, in the middle of a hostile takeover, most companies will want the most hard-nosed lawyer possible fighting their corner.

Many City firms provide just such a service but few do it quite as well as Slaughter and May. A member of the elite "magic circle" of top law firms, it is widely seen as the best to have on your side when the going gets tough, even if it is just to stop the opposition calling on its services. And, among the best individual lawyers, few rival Slaughters' head of corporate practice, Nigel Boardman.

Name any recent big deal and Boardman, one of a handful of City lawyers to take home more than £1m a year, is likely to have been involved. He helped defend Marks & Spencer against retail entrepreneur Philip Green. He advised Hugh Osmond on his Six Continents bid. He represented Asda in its takeover by Wal-Mart and then on the more recent battle for Safeway. And he acted for Orange when it was acquired by the German telecoms giant Mannesmann.

His reputation goes before him, closely followed by the rumours. One of these concerns a trainee lawyer who shared his office. Come 8pm his in-tray was clear and he put on his coat, ready to go home. At which point, Boardman allegedly uttered the first words he had said all day: "Are you cold?" The trainee suddenly remembered he didn't want to go home.

In person, however, Boardman does not live up to his legend. For a reputed City hard nut, he is considerate, soft spoken and content. His average week is between 80 and 85 hours, yet he insists he looks forward to coming into the office. "Every day the problems are different, or you have similar problems and the way you tackle them has to be different," he enthuses. "The further up you go, the more job satisfaction you get."

Boardman qualified in 1975 and has been with Slaughters all his career, bar a 12-month stint at merchant bank Kleinwort Benson early on. He was made a partner in 1982 and became head of the corporate practice in 1996. It is Slaughters' strongest area, accounting for more than half of turnover. Boardman sits on the partnership council, a sort of board for the firm, but has no desire to take on the top job of managing partner, saying "we're a loosely managed firm".

The firm is the odd one out within the magic circle in that it guards its equity jealously. Fellow member Clifford Chance, for example, is the world's largest law firm with 658 partners (although most are salaried, meaning they have not put equity into the firm). Of the others, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has 502, Linklaters 490 and Allen & Overy 408. Slaughters has just 124, all of whom are fully paid-up equity partners.

The other main oddity about Slaughters is its lack of global ambition. While Clifford Chance and co have expanded into every corner of the world, both organically and through joint ventures and mergers, Slaughters has resolutely gone against the tide. All it has is lawyers in Hong Kong and Singapore, a representative office in New York and a Brussels anti-trust practice. Yet, says Boardman, it is his rivals who have made the wrong call: "The law has not become a global industry and there's no significant indication that it will do so in future."

He argues that clients will go to the country's best firm, not a branch office, for the big international deals, making global expansion pointless. That's why Slaughters has "best friend" strategy, striking up close relationships, often exclusively, with firms in other countries.

Certainly, integrating law firms can be tricky. Clifford Chance, for example, is still trying to bed down its merger with US firm Rogers & Wells three years after the event, and the problem often boils down to profit distribution between partners. According to a survey by industry magazine The Lawyer, Slaughters' turn- over last year was £253.5m, whereas Clifford Chance's was £978m. But average profits per partner at Clifford Chance were £644,000; at Slaughters, they were £819,000. No wonder it guards entry to the partnership so closely.

The firm takes in around 90 trainees each year but only a handful will last the course and become partners. This exacting approach pays off for the firm, says Boardman, in that the main criterion for being elected to partnership is whose side of the table would you want the lawyer to be on - yours or the opposition's? He adds: "Do they have the intellectual ability and do they have the personality to say no to Robert Maxwell at two in the morning when he's shouting at you?"

Despite its elitist, establishment reputation, Slaughters is the only top 10 firm with a diversity policy and has one of the highest percentages of female equity partners. It is also flexible in its remuneration, including an element of "no win, no fee" (much of the work Osmond brings to Slaughters is paid for in this way).

There is also the odd example of Boardman squeezing a life into the odd hour he has outside the office. The 53-year-old is the father of six children and has nearly as many season tickets for his beloved Arsenal football team. His overriding love is the law, though, whatever the rest of the world might think of him and his profession. In fact, he thinks he has got off lightly. One of his daughters recently started in recruitment and Boardman relates with horror the extra-ordinarily long hours she works. "Now that," he states, "is a terrible business."