This week David Bickerton, Clifford Chance’s former London Managing Partner, started his new job as a civil servant. He is now Director General, Business Sectors at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. As part of his job he will scrutinise the billions spent by the Government on Covid support.
David and I are old and close friends so this is inevitably a hagiography. But that doesn’t detract from the excellence of the thing that he has done and it shines a light on the difficult choices faced by senior City lawyers when they consider their final, big job.
Few law firms follow the McKinsey mantra of being a good place to work and a good place to leave. The prevailing model is to sweat the assets as hard as possible, pay them a fortune and then drag them kicking and screaming from the building when they’ve outgrown their usefulness. Partners suddenly find themselves at drinks in a forlorn meeting room, about to be stripped of all their status and identity, with a CV which shows that they have run the same deal with minor variation for some thirty years and aren’t equipped to chair the local scout pack. The problem is so acute that some friends and I set up an organization a few years ago to try and give lawyers some boardroom experience before they’re handed their gold watch (shameless plug for BCKR here).
The holy grail for many is Mastership of an Oxbridge college, spending a decade in medieval splendour surrounded by bickering fellows and gilded youth. But such roles are few and far between and tend to go to serious academics or those in a position to raise £50m or so. A few go on to genuinely interesting new pastures. Alasdair Douglas ran the City of London Law Society when he left Travers Smith, a superb organisation that puts its larger, hopeless sibling The Law Society to shame. Matthew Jones lectured at the Judge Business School on his departure from Dentons. But most partners move to other firms (often US ones, which tend to value age and guile above youth and inexperience) or clients for lots of money. Charlie Jacobs, having literally bossed Linklaters for many years, is now at JP Morgan. Which is jolly good for JP Morgan and jolly good for Charlie (and presumably for Charlie’s bank account). But possibly not as good for society as a whole as if he had turned his planet-sized brain to trying to dig the country out of the mess in which it finds itself.
Working for a bank could be a stepping stone, of course. To paraphrase St Augustine, please make me good but not just yet. Stuart Popham, another thoroughly decent guy, took the dollar and joined Citibank for a few years when he stepped down as Senior Partner at Clifford Chance. He is now Chairman of the RNLI, an almost full time and entirely unpaid role of vital importance. And I bet he didn’t think he’d be defending his selfless, volunteer crew from having insults and beer cans thrown at them after risking their lives to save drowning migrants. If I were wearing a hat I’d take it off to him.
David could have carried on coining it at CC for years yet, or made a fortune moving to a US outfit or a bank. Instead he’s in Whitehall making sure what little cash remains in the Treasury is spent wisely. So the local restaurant that is struggling to meet its business rates gets help, the hedge fund that tries to exploit a loophole and leverage itself at more advantageous rates than those available commercially gets shown the door. His remuneration for this complex and critical work will probably be around what his last trainee took home, but his efforts could help ensure that the country’s Covid debt might just be paid off by us rather than our children. What a top bloke.