Introducing Tina Williams: A commercial leader on managing mergers and moves in the City – Part 2

24 Jun 2015

Tina Williams, Chair of corporate City firm Fox Williams, has enviable experience in the world of business. During her professional career, she has advised clients on issues crossing the full spectrum of the corporate and commercial practice area, from M&A and corporate finance to partnership and limited liability partnership matters. Since 2005, she has applied her own expertise to growing Fox Williams as Senior Partner and, latterly as Chair, to strengthening her firm’s international relationships. We spoke to Tina about issues affecting law firms and her own dual role as both adviser and manager.

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Restrictive covenants are common in the marketplace, especially moves at partner level. In practice, how do these work in the City? 

Restrictive covenants of City firms tend not to be geographically focused as they would be unlikely to be enforceable due to specialist work types being concentrated in such a small area. Covenants are usually, and should be, centred around partners being unable to work for clients they have worked for at their previous firm and preventing them from taking former colleagues. 

I do a lot of work in this field, helping clients to recruit without difficulty, and it is not uncommon for restrictions to be commercially, if not legally, ineffective. That said, many firms have reviewed their covenants in the last three years or so to ensure that they will serve their purpose. 

 

Are restrictive covenants important for firms? How do you feel about their use in a changing marketplace and can they continue to be relevant? 

I think they are important and will continue to have a place but there are better ways to protect a firm’s goodwill. It is quite legitimate for a firm to protect itself when a partner or team moves but it is usually clear for some time before a partner resigns that they are unhappy. The leadership team needs to be in touch with the feelings of individual partners in order that steps can be taken to deal with any issues early. 

Restrictions, garden leave and so on are likely only to delay the inevitable; not only that, but enforcing covenants can jeopardise a client relationship as most clients consider they should be free to use whichever professional they wish. A more effective approach is to spread key client relationships across a firm. Partners should be encouraged to share clients and cross-sell, in order to allow others to build relationships, thus creating more glue between client and the firm. 

 

The system in the USA is very different to the UK; how do you feel about their model and could it influence the UK?

Partners in the USA have a much more personal following; restrictions are not permitted under their professional rules and US firms tend to be more sanguine about allowing partners and clients to move at short notice. UK firms are moving in the opposite direction; there are now many US firms in the UK market and the USA’s approach to personal followings could put them at a disadvantage over here.  

A firm where partners command their own clients is at greater risk than a firm which institutionalises clients. The US system is a very different culture. US firms historically found it difficult to recruit over here because of that, although many are now growing successfully and even aggressively in the UK. 

 

How can new team members grow their business and make an impact whilst managing their restrictive covenants? Do you find this affects integration into the firm? 

It is important to respect enforceable restrictive covenants but there must be recognition by a firm that if a partner is going to achieve profitability, it will take time. Partners seldom move across with a ready-made book of active business; whenever a lateral hire is recruited, the members of a firm must join together to support that new recruit and involve them in the firm’s existing work. That said, the ultimate responsibility lies with the new hire to demonstrate that they can bring in new work and not rely entirely on a pre-existing workload. 

 

On a similar line, confidentiality is important in the profession. How can people move and further their careers without breaching confidentiality codes and disclosing sensitive information? 

I am often astonished by the lack of attention people pay to confidentiality obligations owed to their existing firms. They openly discuss who their clients are, revenues generated, firm strategy and remuneration systems, all of which can be avoided by anonymising data and giving predicted future revenue rather than historic actual figures. A great deal of information is publicly available, from company accounts to press releases, which can and should be used. Recruiting firms need to be careful with the questions they are asking not to put a potential hire in a position where they are in breach of confidentiality obligations.

The referencing process is important; firms should speak to a candidate’s principal clients, gauging the strength of their relationship and obtaining their view of the candidate’s abilities. It is tricky but certainly possible to manage this process well. 

 

Following the recent General Election, how do you see the profession changing during the next parliament? Where do you see yourself in that time?

Tina Williams

Five years is a long time and the pace of change is now so fast. Adapting to a changing world is a mark of success; some trends such as globalisation, consolidation and commoditisation are already well-established. The importance of technology is constantly growing and here to stay. The next big challenge may come from the multi-disciplinary practices (including the ‘Big 4’ accountancy firms). Brand recognition and driving cost efficiencies will undoubtedly be important. It will be interesting to see how we adapt to developments; change must be embraced if one is to remain in business.

Personally, I enjoy what I do and will continue to give it my all. It is a huge privilege to be a lawyer and I savour that.

 

Thank you to Tina for taking the time to talk to us.

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For part 1 of the interview, please Click Here

For more information about Fox Williams, please visit: www.foxwilliams.com