Law: Putting success down to chance: Roger Trapp meets Keith Clark, new senior partner of the UK's largest firm of solicitors, Clifford Chance

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The Independent Online
AT 48, Keith Clark is considered rather young to be taking on the senior partnership of the UK's largest firm of solicitors, Clifford Chance. This leads some friends and rivals to regard him as brave; he, however, considers himself lucky.

The man who for the next five years will be running a business with an estimated turnover of pounds 230m puts a lot down to chance. Words like 'luck' and 'fortunate' pepper his conversation.

While Nigel Fox Bassett, his predecessor at the helm of Clifford Chance, had to contend with a period of consolidation, Keith Clark believes he will be able to lead the organisation's 230 partners, 1,000-odd solicitors and as many support staff into a period of expansion.

Clifford Chance is third or fourth in the international rankings - Mr Clark cannot remember which. He insists that the fully integrated structure - all partners around the globe have an equity stake in the organisation - makes the firm's service particularly attractive to clients seeking advice on cross-border transactions. 'We feel our foundations are right. It's one full-equity firm worldwide. There are no separate profit centres,' he says.

With offices in Paris and Brussels and particularly successful bases in Madrid, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, the firm has looked increasingly to Europe and further afield to escape the recession. In recent weeks it has opened up in Barcelona and received approval from the Chinese government to begin operating in Shanghai.

At home though, things are certain to be tighter. The firm has consistently denied rumours that its recent move into an enormous glass building in the City has put financial strain on its partners.

There have also been widespread suggestions that the building, with its atrium, fitness room and swimming pool, is too ostentatious. But the partners say that it enables all the firm's London-based staff to work effectively together under one roof for the first time since the merger of Clifford Turner and Coward Chance five-and-a-half years ago. And Mr Clark believes that the fitness facilities are justifiable for people who work hard.

Like others, the firm has had to 'let people go' from departments such as commercial property. More significant, though, is its attempt to control the wage bill by cutting the salaries for newly qualified solicitors by pounds 1,000. If competitors follow this lead, progress could be made in the battle to halt the trend for soaring salaries that began in the Eighties and so control the fees charged to clients.

Mr Clark points out that the deregulation of the financial markets created a special need for lawyers in the last decade. 'I don't see the economic situation now being similar to the Eighties when law firms did compete for graduates and salaries went up. You've got to do what the market requires,' he says.

This is particularly important to Mr Clark, since he has spent the last few years as Clifford Chance's marketing partner. He stresses that this role was less a public relations job than one of working out how the firm could respond to the needs of clients.

Far from being sidelined as the marketing partner, he retained clients because, he says: 'You have got to understand clients' business and what's happening in the market place.' He will remain in contact with some clients while pursuing his new role.

The managing partner, Geoffrey Howe, is responsible for day-to-day management, while Mr Clark looks after strategy. Since Mr Howe is regarded as a detail man and Mr Clark is said to have vision, the two are expected to complement each other.

Before assuming these management responsibilities, Mr Clark carved out a formidable reputation in banking law. Initially, he was active in the Euromarkets which exploded in the Seventies. But, according to Bill Tudor John, managing partner of Allen & Overy, the firm where Mr Clark began his career, he made his name in the Eighties helping to sort out the sovereign debt problems of countries in Africa and Europe, especially Poland.

While there appears to have been little planning in Mr Clark's career progress, a colleague says he always knew what he wanted - 'and now he's got it'. His new role brings him a salary approaching pounds 500,000 a year. It is also a move that has taken him a long way from his upbringing in Chichester, where his father ran a shop selling decorating materials.

Unlike many scions of family businesses, neither he nor his elder brother - who has displayed a similarly international approach by working around the world for Shell - were put under pressure to join the firm.

'My parents saw that the days of the family business were not going to continue. They gave us every encouragement to spend our time and energies on education,' he says.

After the local boys' high school, he went up to St Catharine's College, Oxford, where he studied law. Enjoying the subject partly because of the understanding it provided of social values, he stayed on for an extra year to study for a Bachelor of Civil Law.

He opted for the City, and moved to what was then Coward Chance after completing his two years of articles. He did corporate work for a couple of years before switching to banking and finance.

The work is demanding and requires long hours in the office, but Mr Clark's own childhood taught him the value of family life. He is keen to maintain a distance between work and the north London home he shares with his wife, who is a medieval historian, and their two children.

He is also a strong believer in the importance of maintaining 'a balanced set of interests', which in his case are family, reading, ballet and walking. But no one should be deluded into thinking him a soft touch. He is regarded as highly businesslike and speaks the language of the hard- headed captain of industry.

He is pleased with the firm's performance through the recession. Everything that has happened since the 'carefully thought-out' merger has 'vindicated our business thinking', Mr Clark says.

With such confidence and sureness of purpose, it is hardly surprising that he does not share the concern of Mr Tudor John and others that he might find it difficult to be one of the soldiers again after serving as the general. Perhaps mindful of the example of George Staple, who resigned as a Clifford Chance partner last year to become head of the Serious Fraud Office, Mr Tudor John thinks Mr Clark might look to pastures new. But he will not be drawn.

'What I've been doing has changed at successive stages of my career and the firm itself has continued to change and develop. I don't see a need at this stage to be worried about what I'm going to be doing in five years' time,' he says. 'I'm completely comfortable that there will be interesting things to do.'

(Photograph omitted)