Law: The firm that wants to conquer the world

Forthright, rugby-playing lawyer Terence Kyle is to head up a truly global firm.

Linda Tsang
Friday 21 August 1998 00:02

"HE IS known for calling a spade `a bloody shovel, not just a spade'," says a colleague. As to his management style, another partner says: "He is much more modern and business-like - there are far fewer meetings. You are just given a goal to achieve and told to achieve it - or else..."

He is not your average City lawyer. The name is Kyle, Terence Kyle, and he is currently the managing partner of City law firm Linklaters & Paines. But from 1 November he will be chief executive of Linklaters & Alliance - an international legal practice that will include leading law firms from Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium and total almost 2,000 lawyers in 28 offices world-wide. It is a move that has shaken up European legal practice and has stirred other City law firms with designs on expanding in Europe.

The firm's original strategy to expand world-wide was first put together at a partnership retreat in the summer of 1996, and contact was made with the Alliance of European Lawyers, which was made up of firms in Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium, in early 1997. The deal was finalised this July.

Asked whether his "direct" style may have helped in the delicate negotiations which has led to this mega legal practice, Kyle will not be drawn; but the impression is that he quite enjoys the image and anecdotes that picture him as "direct and forthright". He says his reputation "did not have much of a part to play in the negotiations with the Alliance, but there were certainly a lot of tough moments in setting up Linklaters & Alliance - when it might not have gone ahead. It was extremely politically sensitive, negotiating and making decisions on the back of those negotiations".

Given the different cultures of the European firms involved, getting four of the seven original European firms to come on board is, according to a litigation partner, John Turnbull, "a great achievement, and belies Kyle's reputation. Setting up Linklaters & Alliance needed considerable diplomacy and sensitivity."

Kyle was once the hooker in the school, college and London Irish first XV teams, but plays down the suggestion that it is an aggressive position, stressing instead that it requires the ability to co-ordinate and establish a rapport with the team. Similarly, he is adamant that, avoiding the "F" word (federation), Linklaters & Alliance will be an international legal practice where it is envisaged that all the firms will merge (subject to accounting and other administrative systems being agreed and put in place) as soon as is practicable. In his view, this will be sooner rather than later.

He'd had no deliberate goal of becoming more involved on the management side than the legal side, nor to take what will be a globetrotting executive role. However,he says, "There was a tacit assumption that Linklaters would provide the person to take up the four-year appointment as chief executive".

Kyle, who is now 52, was born and educated in Belfast and later read classics and law at Cambridge. "There are no hidden QCs in the family," he says. "I decided that I wanted to do law when I was in sixth- form college."

He joined Linklaters & Paines in 1970, with six others, as an articled clerk. Of his contemporaries, two are current managing partners at other leading law firms - John Rink at Allen & Overy, and Roger Birkby at Norton Rose - and there is also his colleague Anthony Cann, head of corporate law at Linklaters.

Kyle stayed with the firm on qualification, becoming a partner in 1979, and heading up the firm's International Financial Services department in 1989. Kyle became managing partner in 1995 and gave up legal work. As one partner comments, "there was nothing as vulgar as an election". Kyle was the frontrunner after a considerable consultation process, and once he became managing partner, Linklaters effectively became his only client.

Both Kyle and the firm's senior partner Charles Allen-Jones (together they are the "Scary" and "Posh" of the firm ) are credited with taking Linklaters from the grey men of the City to the global player it is now, and that includes expansion into Latin America and moves to hire US lawyers to retain their pole position as lawyers in the capital markets sector.

As one in-house lawyer has commented, the firm was seen as "technically great, but boring - the Steve Davis of the legal world"; but Kyle says Linklaters & Alliance is "certainly not the Hurricane Higgins" of that world. Instead, he considers the brand will stand for quality legal services for clients globally. Even before the Ts were crossed and the Is dotted in the link-up with the Alliance law firms, Linklaters had a redesign courtesy of Saatchi, having already established that it had its own distinct corporate identity.

But it is not alone in global expansion. Another major player in international legal terms, Clifford Chance, has already announced its intention to double its lawyers in mainland Europe from 500 to 1,000 by the millennium. Senior partner Keith Clark comments: "Kyle is the logical choice as chief executive. He is a good operator with lots of energy and a no-nonsense approach, and a strong personality. He will be very effective. More generally, the issue is the degree of authority lying in that management position, and the degree of pooled authority needed to drive Linklaters & Alliance."

Kyle concedes that his new role will be a challenge. Management of Linklaters & Alliance will be run from London and Brussels, and although there are rumours of streamlining the new firm, "there is no reason why you would have to indulge in wholesale bloodletting. To be credible, you have to have critical mass, and there is always the financial point that the risk can be spread more broadly."

In the meantime, he is on the lookout for firms to plug the gaps where the three firms in France, Spain and Italy did not come on board.

Linklaters & Alliance is also expanding elsewhere. It recently took a 10-lawyer team from New York firm White & Case, and is actively seeking to expand its US practice in the finance field, and there is scope for expansion in other jurisdictions, such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Kyle says, only half jokingly, "World domination as a business philosophy is one I share with a number of my partners. It's one I had in the Eighties, and still have."

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