You have been chair of Paul Hastings’ City office since October 2018. What have been your personal highlights of how the firm has developed in London?
Arun Birla (AB): I’ve enjoyed seeing our practices grow, and not just from a client or revenue perspective, but also in other aspects that are particularly important to me – diversity and inclusion, wellness, and on the social mobility front. We’ve built on all those elements – clients, revenues and integrating new partners, alongside what some people might call the softer things, but I don’t like that term.
How has the London office performed over the past year?
AB: The pandemic has meant that over the last year the office has very much focused on the people aspect, be it ensuring we remained clients’ partners in the true sense of the word, and investing in our people. It’s been a challenging time, obviously, but the key has been to continue to communicate with everyone, making sure no one is left out. Seth [Zachary], chair of Paul Hastings, has talked about remoteness itself creating remoteness. Part of my role has been to ensure that partners are properly mentoring and checking in with teams. More globally, we created the Covid fund for employees and their relations who were hit with hardship. That was a great thing for the firm to do and to be involved in.
The pandemic has forced people to be innovative and be more personal in their outlook with people. You’ve got to do things differently, approach clients differently – ensure your partners are doing different types of business development. It’s allowed individuals within the office to grow more than they otherwise would have done in the status quo.
‘The pandemic has forced people to be innovative and be more personal in their outlook with people. It’s allowed individuals within the office to grow more than they otherwise would have done in the status quo.’ Arun Birla, Paul Hastings
I’ve personally been very concerned about a generation – the juniors – missing out on a year or a year and a half through not being in the office. I learned what I do from osmosis, sitting in a room listening into a call. It’s not natural when you’re organising a Zoom call to invite your trainee because the client may see it, whereas if you’re just sitting in a room on a call, you can just listen and learn. The firm didn’t want that generation to lose out, so everything we did and continue to do is focused on making sure that doesn’t get overlooked.
What have been the standout matters that demonstrate Paul Hastings’ strengths?
AB: The bondholder work we did on McLaren was pretty good. Matthew Poxon and Anu Balasubramanian worked on the Link IPO, the biggest IPO in the Nordics. Those are great ones that spring to mind.
What are your ambitions over the next few years? Is there an area you feel needs to be invested in?
AB: We’ve continued to hire, most recently capital markets partner Max Kirchner from Proskauer Rose in March. The strategy is continuing to invest in our key practice areas, which are pretty diverse and allow us to keep well hedged. You’ve got private equity, finance, and we’ve invested heavily in the investigations and white-collar crime practice with the hire of Jonathan Pickworth and Joanna Dimmock from White & Case.
We will continue to invest in top talent and hopefully that will be across a number of areas that resonate with our strengths in the US, so that will include securities and capital markets, funds, private equity, finance and restructuring. It’s about investing in the areas that allow us to present our global strengths to our clients in the best possible way. Because the market is so competitive in the world we’re operating in at the premium end, you want to ensure that you’re giving the best service to clients, particularly in the US and in London. We know where we’re good and we’ll just build on that.
What about organic growth? What scope is there for that in London?
AB: I was saying to a recruiter recently that we’re not going to be hiring laterals at the expense of our top talent internally because otherwise you stop building a legacy. It’s important to me. I’ve just made up a partner in my team who was effectively the first paralegal and trainee who has come through the ranks. It was an important milestone for the office and we hope to have many more following in those footsteps in the coming years. It’s important to not lose part of the identity of the firm.
What is your elevator pitch for attracting new recruits?
AB: Our ambition. The firm offers the right trajectory for people who want to work together and be collegiate with their partners and be part of a growing office. We’re at the size that’s quite exciting and there’s a general buzz, even though we’re operating virtually. It’s important to the firm’s leadership that everyone understands the opportunities open to them at every level. I say to trainees, if you want to work hard and get rewarded in a very meritocratic way, come to Paul Hastings.
We’re very future-focused, so it’s about the next five and ten years. We are confident about the future and we want individuals who are themselves confident about the future and want to be part of the same story.
Has there been a shift in strategy or business model in light of the pandemic?
AB: Clearly yes. In terms of business development, we’re not flying around the globe, not hosting conferences and events, so it’s all become virtual. There’s that term ‘Zoom fatigue’ but you need to get over that hurdle and ensure that clients are still engaged, but in different ways. I was speaking to one of my clients about two months into the first lockdown and they were saying they were being bombarded by law firms with these virtual events. A lot of clients were in need of quick and critical advice so you have to be more nimble, more engaging and more communicative.
How would you define the firm’s culture?
AB: It’s very collegiate and, without being automatons, we are all heading towards the same goal of the firm being more successful, but doing it the right way and having fun while we’re doing it – enjoying engaging with top talent and colleagues on a daily basis. Everyone is well aware it’s not just about yourself or this generation, it’s about the generation coming through. People recognise that because if you just operate in your silos and it’s all about your own practice and no-one else, once that practice is gone, what’s left? We’re cognisant of avoiding those sorts of scenarios.
‘I’ve been very concerned about a generation missing out on a year through not being in the office. I learned what I do from osmosis, sitting in a room listening into a call.’
Arun Birla, Paul Hastings
How do you think the firm’s brand is seen in the market and what would you change about that perception?
AB: The perception is that we’re strong on the finance and structured finance side of things. Our CLO practice is one of the top practices globally. We obviously need to grow in certain areas like private equity, but we are doing great deals. White-collar investigations, that’s important as well. We’ve got arguably the leading compliance and investigations practice in the US so it’s ensuring we can globally become the number one practice in that area. We’re focused on finance, M&A, private equity, and restructuring.
Do you see the firm focusing more on ESG?
AB: We did a series of social impact investing seminars last year and had some really good speakers. It’s important to our investment fund and private fund clients. We teamed up with ClearlySo, a social impact investment bank. It was eye-opening and we got excellent feedback. ESG is going to be something that investors are looking at all the time. It’s absolutely key to what we do, particularly in the investments and the M&A space.
What diversity targets does the firm have and what progress has been made?
AB: I want to continue to invest in diversity and inclusion, social wellbeing and social mobility. I’ve been appointed as one of the Law Society ambassadors for social mobility. The firm is much like our competitors – we’re focused on diversity but we can do much better. It’s like a school report. We’re doing well but could do much better. We continue to rally around efforts on both sides of the pond. I have said before that I thought 2019 was going to effectively be the milestone year for diversity and inclusion. Obviously I couldn’t predict the events of 2020 but it emphasised what I was thinking. It’s been so long. You can’t keep on just having initiative after initiative without having tangible results. Social mobility overlaps everything and you have to go back to the basics, the schools and the universities, and start from there. You’re not going to get your results this year or next year but in five years’ time. It’s the grass-roots argument. When you’re trying to fix a leak, a bit of plumbing in the middle doesn’t do anything – you’ve got to take the whole thing out and start again. There’s clearly an issue. There’s no point in hiding under the table and pretending it’s not there.
What does the firm need to do to fulfil its ambitions in London?
AB: I don’t like putting number on things but we are very confident about the future and it is all about the future. We’re in a landmark space, we’ve got the space to fill and it would be great if in five years’ time we’ve filled it. But not through hiring randomly. We will continue to be strategic and hire top talent which fits with the way we operate.
‘We’re not going to be hiring laterals at the expense of our top talent internally because otherwise you stop building a legacy.’
Arun Birla, Paul Hastings
How do you see working life evolving in the coming years?
AB: The office is not going away. It’s important on a number of levels because of the community responsibility factor and the person factor, interacting with each other. I don’t believe that we’re going to suddenly find ourselves wanting to move out of our brand new space. A lot of folks will want to come back to the office. There will be a huge mental toll on people readjusting and coming back to work. People are still crossing the road if they see people walking towards them. There’ll come a point where there are so many people around that you can’t cross the road. People are going to have to adjust their thinking and it will be hard for a lot of people. There will be a lot of mental health issues to deal with.
How well equipped do you think the firm is to deal with those types of challenges?
AB: We regularly let the staff know of various initiatives. We’ve got external as well as internal help. Some people feel more comfortable with external, independent, help. We’ve got a programme called PH Balance, with lots of things that can help individuals. We will be ready for that. You can’t just assume that people come in and do their work and that’s all you need from them. That’s not right, there’s a wider deal and it’s important that we stick to that.
At a glance: Paul Hastings
Headcount: 264 partners (186 equity); 954 total lawyers
Number of offices: 21
Revenue 2020: $1.31bn
Profit per equity partner 2020: $3.9m
Five-year growth track (2015-20): 24%
The Legal 500 UK: How does Paul Hastings rank?
Total rankings (all tiers) = 21
Corporate and commercial
5 – Corporate tax
5 – Financial services: contentious
5 – Financial services: non-contentious/regulatory
5 – M&A: upper mid-market and premium deals, £500m+
3 – Private equity: transactions – mid-market deals (up to £250m)
Roger Barron (M&A: upper mid-market and premium deals, £500m+)
Steven Bryan (M&A: upper mid-market and premium deals, £500m+)
Anu Balasubramanian (Private equity: transactions – mid-market deals (up to £250m))
Crime, fraud and licensing
Jonathan Pickworth (Fraud: white-collar crime)
6 – Employers
4 – Acquisition finance
4 – Corporate restructuring & insolvency
4 – Derivatives and structured products
2- High yield
Luke McDougall (Acquisition finance)
Peter Hayes (Bank lending: investment grade debt and syndicated loans)
David Ereira (Corporate restructuring & insolvency)
Derwin Jenkinson (Debt capital markets)
Max Kirchner (High yield)
Peter Schwartz (High yield)
Cameron Saylor (Securitisation)
Charles Roberts (Securitisation)
Conor Downey (Securitisation)
5 – Energy and infrastructure
3 – Hospitality and leisure
Steven Bryan (Energy and infrastructure)
Michael James (Hospitality and leisure)
Investment fund formation and management
3 – Fund finance
5 – Private funds (including infrastructure funds)
3 – Real estate funds
Duncan Woollard (Private funds (including infrastructure funds))
2 – Commercial property: investment
2 – Property finance
Justin Jowitt (Property finance)
Michael James (Commercial property: investment)
3 – Data protection, privacy and cybersecurity
3 – Regulatory investigations and corporate crime (advice to corporates)
2 – Fintech