Legal Business Blogs

Life During Law: Andrew Ballheimer

I’m the son of immigrants and they were intent that I had an education, so I had to become a professional. To be honest, I was only going to practise law for two years and then do something else.

The first thing I ever did as an associate was spend all night perfecting a document, checking every page. Two-months qualified at the signing, I handed over the execution page. I’d misspelt the client’s name. You spend all this time getting it right and everything’s perfect except for the most important word in the document. His bloody name!

Two years in, I was asked to go to our New York office. I was 26 and the chance of going there as a single guy was fantastic. I was 18 months off partnership so I thought: ‘I’m so close, I should go for it.’ New York was edgy, pre-clean-up. Exciting, if a bit dangerous in parts. It was a small office. I was the second associate ever there. A real adventure.

Happily, I made partner. Then I went to Tokyo for two years, started a capital markets practice there. I went back to the States for seven years to relaunch our New York office.

Tokyo was the most alien place I’d ever been but I loved it. I didn’t know where to go because all the street signs are in Japanese and I didn’t speak any. To start a business was a great opportunity and challenge. The people are lovely. It teaches you a style of doing business that is the antithesis of what I’d grown up with here and in New York, where everything is boom, boom, boom!

I was prepped on etiquette so I didn’t screw up too badly. We had client lunches or dinners and they’d bring out food to test us. I had a prawn, which was still alive – in its death throes. It dies on your plate and then you eat it. And they’d all stop and watch you. I can eat anything. Had blowfish. If it’s not prepared properly, it can kill you. They watched to see if you had the nerve.

I’ve unfortunately seen a series of tragic events. The Kyoto earthquake and 9/11. I was heading the New York office in the middle of that. Truly awful, truly sad. We had a bunch of clients die, friends die. Things happen and you have to be calm and also decisive. It’s hard. When 9/11 happened our building was in a high-rise and we had to make a decision on whether to send people home. We didn’t because they couldn’t get home. All the bridges and tunnels were closed so we found people beds at colleagues’ houses.

I came back here in ’03 during a mini-recession. Building a practice here as partner in a recession had its challenges but I was lucky. I brought back a client [the Glazers] from the States who bid for Manchester United and that was the highest-profile public M&A deal in years. They didn’t have a target in mind, they were just keen to invest outside the States. Random, in many ways.

At the height of the takeover of Man Utd there was an AGM and I had 80 million proxy votes to vote off a third of the board. Our head of security insisted on coming because the fans were after me. We went to the AGM and I went to the bathroom and he assumed I’d been kidnapped. He called the police.

At the Legal Business Awards we won the M&A Team of the Year for that. We went up and the banking partner went up ahead. He fell off the back of the stage! He bounces up, thinks no-one’s noticed, but he’s covered in dust and dishevelled, oblivious to the fact. That was amusing.

I support Spurs. I have done a lot of deals involving football clubs. You can always get staffing for that.

I also did the takeover of Liverpool Football Club. The BBC arrived for the press conference. The documents got lost at the law firm acting for the target and the trainee went AWOL. The clients were going mad. They ended up having to sign a blank bit of paper and pretend it was the document.

I was doing an IPO and the banker emailed: ‘If this clown [the client] is in charge, it’s never going to get done.’ But instead of me, he’d emailed ‘the clown’. The client answered: ‘I am a clown and we will get this done!’

Trust will help a deal happen immeasurably. The antithesis is a destructive influence. Act with integrity, be reasonable and keep your ego out of the room. There’s confidence and then there’s grandstanding.

I hope almost everyone I’ve dealt with has come away and said: ‘I like Andy. He’s reasonable. He was looking after his client, he wasn’t doing anything else.’

How would I like to be remembered as managing partner? I didn’t screw it up! Not too much, at least. It’s for others to do my obituary.

The priority was driving revenue growth in a profitable manner and we’ve achieved that. In a four-year period, we would have increased our turnover by half a billion dollars. I’m proud of that.

Leadership style? I try to be open, fair and decisive. I think of myself as a friendly person and a person who has integrity. I want to be accessible, open and fair.

Wim [Dejonghe, senior partner]’s style? We’re different and not different. He’s a visionary and brave. I think of all the pros and cons and how we go there and he just thinks: ‘We’ve got to get there!’ Wim’s big picture and I’m about the detail.

Innovation started in 2010. I would say this, wouldn’t I, but A&O is at the forefront of innovation in our industry. I don’t think any other firms are anywhere close.

A&O is a special place and we’ve kept that going. We’ve kept up with and maybe overtaken many of our peers. I’ve played a small part in that and I’m proud.

Biggest inspiration? My family – my father, my wife. My father was always very positive, though he had a hard life. He arrived in England aged 11 and his father passed away two weeks after that. He had to work from then onwards. Always humble, unselfish, with a great work ethic.

My wife has had to put up with a lot with me. She is wise and calm and holds it all together. Incredibly insightful. Our job is great but you have to work out how your home life works, and that’s not always easy. You have to make sure it’s a dynamic arrangement and talk about it.

No idea what I’m doing next. I’ll work out my next gig. Mixture of public interest, the community, and some more commercial stuff. It’s time for a new challenge. I want to stretch myself.

My son is a disappointment – he’s becoming a lawyer! He studied classics and never asked about the law and then a year ago said he was thinking of internships at law firms. I said: ‘I do that!’, to which he said: ‘No, you don’t – it’s different!’

I had no idea how hard it is to get these internships. In our day, if you were breathing, people hired you. He’s got a training contract at Herbert Smith Freehills.

His twin sister is becoming a doctor. Nowadays jobs are so hard, unless it’s a vocation, it’s not worth doing. As long as they are good people, I don’t really care. And as long as they look after their father!

I play tennis once a week but it’s not enough. Theatre, family and friends. I travel a lot in this job. That’s hard on catching up with friends and family.

My favourite film is The Godfather. Watched it a squillion times. I know every word, sadly. I like reading biographies and autobiographies. It gives you insight into people. Leaders and their foibles, idiosyncrasies.

It’s possible to pull off a merger on an integrated basis but it takes creativity and courage and time is against you. If it takes too long, it becomes a hurdle. You have to move at a decent clip, that’s hard, unless one of the firms is in trouble, and neither of them were.

I’m glad we tried. We got incredibly close. It would have given us the opportunity to accelerate away from our peer firms. It didn’t hurt our business. If we had our time again we’d do it again.

Gareth Price is incredibly clever, brimming with ideas. Partners are very positive about him taking over [as managing partner]. He’ll have a lot of fun.

There are tinges of sadness. I’ve been extraordinarily happy here but it’s healthy it comes to an end. We have to pass it to the next partners, the future.

No regrets. It’s not who I am. Have I screwed up on occasion? Absolutely. I’ve been incredibly lucky. Worked with amazing people all over the world. I’ve had the privilege of leading A&O. It’s been amazing. I choke up at this stage!

All of us are so institutionalised. I’ve been coming to work since 1985. Had a desk, a PA, a boss, an income. It’s been nice and secure. You just get on with it. In a year’s time I’ll either be a broken person or very happy. My wife is seriously anxious about my retirement but my dog is very pleased. A golden retriever. He understands.

I had these amazing adventures. All these opportunities and all of a sudden, 33 years later, I’m now thinking, ‘Hang on, I was meant to have left 31 years ago!’

Andrew Ballheimer is the former managing partner of Allen & Overy. This interview took place prior to the Covid-19 lockdown.

Photography by Brendan Lea