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Q&A: Pinsents new managing partner Cleland on priorities, understanding the numbers and what he will miss most

Pinsent Masons‘ John Cleland (pictured) takes up the reins as the firm’s new managing partner today (Friday 1 May). He talks to Legal Business about his three priorities for the business, his preparations for taking on the role and whether he will miss fee earning.

What are your first priorities as you take up the managing partner role?

I have got three main priorities. The first is growth. As a firm we are very much in growth mode as demonstrated by the record number of partner promotions recently, the fact we have some impressive laterals coming in and the decision to open in Australia. We need that growth to come in through the bottom line and getting the right level of profitability into the business will give us the financial muscle to keep making investments globally and allow the firm to thrive in the long term.

The second priority is people. I’ve certainly been very keen to encourage an open and approachable culture within the financial institutions practice I’ve been responsible for – I’m quite keen to give people autonomy and encourage them to drive through on decision making.

The third thing is probably innovation. We are pretty good at it but we need to make it easier to innovate within the business, we need to streamline processes and to ingrain it in our culture, allowing us to challenge the established norms.

You were elected managing partner in December. What sort of preparations have you been undertaking since then?

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to the senior management within the business, talking to those who support the firm in terms of the principle business support functions. I’ve also spent a bit of time talking to a number of partners and colleagues across the business geographically and across the areas of operation as well as working with David Ryan in terms of a very detailed handover which picks up on the key issues.

I was running a very large and successful business in financial institutions myself so part of my role post the election in December has been to work to smoothly transition my own role onto my successor Martin Bishop and ensure that the financial institutions business has had a successful year.

How has your role as financial institutions head prepared you for the managing partner role?

The financial institutions world is one where you have demanding clients, you have a very large legal spend and has required us for a number of years to be very innovative in terms of fee structures. It has also been an area where we have been able to be very innovative in terms of technological support for the client. These are things that have been commonplace in the banking sector for a long time.

We have responded well to that. We have won panel roles for the bigger banks and insurance names in the UK, and at the same time we have increased profitability and I felt that some of that experience would be very useful to offer to the partnership. And the financial institutions business is widely based, in the UK, France, Germany and in the Gulf so there is a clearer element of cross-border working and looking at the issues across the various areas in which we operate. That has also been very helpful. I’ve also had a wider role within the firm as a member of the firm’s remuneration and partnership committee.

The election for managing partner was a three-man race. What differentiated you from the other candidates?

I suspect people felt that my background in finance was highly relevant to the role. As the job is very much about understanding the numbers. There may also have been a sense that Richard Foley and I would work well together because we come from very different backgrounds in terms of our transactional background – I’m a transactional finance lawyer, he’s a construction litigator. He has got quite a bit of international experience whereas my career has been based in the UK. So I suspect that there was a sense that we would work well together and we have complementary skills and experience and that appealed to the partners at this point in the firm’s history.

This wasn’t an election about different strategies. We all agree on the firm’s strategy, it was an election around different styles. How did you want to take the business forward – the partnership had to decide which of the various styles exhibited by the candidates they wanted to embrace.

Will you miss fee earning?

I will miss certain elements of it yes but the things I will miss most is the coaching and supervision of lawyers and the development of lawyers – working with them, bringing them up in terms of skills and then giving them the confidence to work with clients.

I have enjoyed working with clients as well. It is good to be able to solve problems. I am a finance lawyer, I’m a transactional lawyer so I like instructing deals and operating within that framework and I’ve enjoyed getting to grips with new structures as the market has had to adapt to different conditions.

I’ll miss that kind of challenge but by a mile the thing I will miss most is the coaching, supervision and the development of people in the technical sense. Now clearly the new role will also require me to work with people very closely and hopefully be able to get the best out of them so it is not completely waving goodbye to those skills – far from it – but it is just applied in a different way.

For more analysis of the challenges facing Pinsents’ new leadership team see: More outward-facing but does new leadership have a message for Pinsents?