Legal Business Blogs

Q&A: Shearman’s Nick Buckworth talks keeping a focused business, peer pressure and climbing Mont Blanc

Shearman & Sterling’s London office has outpaced the rest of the firm, with revenue last year growing 7% in the City to hit $145m compared to the 3% rise achieved by the firm as a whole in the 12 months to 31 December 2014. Two years into a three year plan to restore the firm’s fortunes, Europe chief Nick Buckworth (pictured) talks firing up the firm’s international offering.

TM: How have things changed under the leadership of Creighton Condon and David Beveridge?

NB: For the first time everything is in line. I joined in 1995 and have seen a lot of changes take place. Shearman instinctively knew it had to be international, and was ahead of its time in that respect. It was devolved and as long as you made a success of your own business it was okay. The firm has delivered clear strategy and strong sense of direction and leadership. You can’t have an abstract culture so someone’s got to stand up and say this is where we’re headed and this is why.

TM: What about your own leadership. What have you done since becoming Europe managing partner in early 2012?

NB: When I joined London was a classic foreign office, it was standalone, but we’ve revamped what we expect of people and how they work. Our mission is to be a hub for our European and Middle Eastern offices so, when we’re making choices about clients, we think about which ones could benefit the whole firm.

A number of US firms struggle with having a shared vision but you could ask anyone in our offices and they’d tell you we’re a firm focused on being a high-end, cross-border transactions firm offering a partner-led service. We’re not commoditising and we’re not overleveraging. Today the job of our partners deliver results with leading players in the market, become a trusted adviser, and then get them onto the platform. The difference now is the kudos you achieve for doing that. Our culture has evolved so that everyone needs to stand up and be counted.

TM: What if a partner does not integrate their clients into the firm more widely, and still feels their position is stronger holding an individual relationship?

NB: The most important thing is that you’d be increasingly left out. We’re still a single equity partnership, we don’t have salaried partners, so we don’t fire partners. We’ve got to create peer pressure.

We’re a relatively conservative structure, we’re not eat what you kill, so if it’s someone on my watch we’d go to the partner and ask how we can help and encourage them to believe they’d be more highly valued if they worked at integrating clients to become firm clients.

TM: London outpaced the majority of the firm when it comes to growth. What do you put that success down to and do you feel the office gets the recognition it deserves?

NB: We’re the best kept secret in London! A part of that is because we never bring people in when the role can be filled by home grown talent. London has put a lot of effort into its NQ programme.

A lot of US firms in London have tension with the US, with strategies not coalescing. We’ve made the money we have in London because of the succes of our global network, the high quality we have here and our success in integrating with the broader platform. We’re going toe to toe with the Magic Circle in London.

People, whether a practice or an office, occasionally come and ask for investment in an area that doesn’t fit with the firm’s goals. My job is to encourage them to focus on what is core and strategic. Why don’t you hire in M&A instead. The bottom line is, if it doesn’t get through me, it won’t happen.

Look at [private equity partner] Mark Soundy coming in [from Weil, Gotshal & Manges]. That team filled a gap and enhanced the opportunities for the whole office. We’re not a group of departments we’re a business and we’ve got to be greater than the sum of our parts.

TM: Has the Magic Circle lost its dominance over the London legal market?

NB: They have deep penetration of the financial services sector in the UK. They originally needed leverage as to get that penetration they worked with every business line, even for commoditised work. The traditional view is thinking that’s what is needed to get the big deals but clients are increasingly willing to differentiate. There is a group of firms who have the credibility to do the big deals and they do not have to do every piece of business to get that work.

TM: The feeling is that Shearman is not as respected in New York as it once was. Does the brand need to improve?

NB: Even in the dark days when our profits were slipping the brand remained robust. The market loves the brand. Shearman & Sterling stands for quality.

We clearly need to drive our PEP, and that is the plan, but we’re doing it by changing our business and therefore doing it in a sustainable way. We could cut, as other firms have done by de-equitising partners, but we’d rather grow. There is space for a high quality global business like ours. We’re originating work in our own right and not hanging off the coattails of US partners. It feels like a small Magic Circle environment.

TM: What is the target?

NB: The $2m mark is clearly a threshold. For every firm that’s a short term objective. We’ve got massive potential to take the firm to the absolute highest levels. Shearman is well and truly on the up.

TM: What’s been the hardest moment so far?

NB: I don’t find it hard. It’s pretty exhausting as you’re still frontline, doing deals and not back office, but it’s not hard. I’ve abseiled the Shard, climbed Mont Blanc, but the purest form of pressure I’ve ever felt is standing up in front of a slighting ropey band and singing.

TM: What’s your best advice for other law firm leaders?

NB: You can’t issue edicts from behind a closed door. People are always looking to see what your mood is, and you need to be confident as that spreads throughout the team.

TM: Have you achieved a work-life balance?

NB: I’m a human being and I need my own life. I’ve got a wife and three children, a horse and I love skiing.