Jeff is Head of the Private Equity Group and Head of Sustainability. He studied Law at Newcastle University before joining Slaughter and May as a trainee in 1989 and became a partner in 1998.
How it all began
I liked watching courtroom dramas, I liked arguing, and I once had quite a debate with a policeman. He said "you should be a lawyer", and it all came together. However, I was not a model student and my tutor was rather surprised when I told him that I would indeed like to qualify as a lawyer. By that time I had missed a place at law school (now the LPC) so I spent a year working in a bank, lending small sums to the unemployed, farmers and students, and sometimes having to go around and ask for it back. I didn’t really have any help with choosing a law firm. I gathered a few brochures and sent off some letters. I came here for an interview and liked the look of the place, so I accepted.
My first day
I turned up with 70 or so others and felt completely out of my depth. Surrounded by people who seemed confident, intelligent and sophisticated – not words that I would choose for me. But soon enough, I worked out that first impressions aren’t always right and it was a job that was rather practical in fact and you could get a lot done with common sense and communicating well.
A valuable lesson
I remember going along to my first meeting with a senior partner. He had arranged it and, as we set off, he asked me where we were going and what we were going to talk about. I had no idea. But he was making a point and I remember thinking those two little things would be useful facts to find out for the next meeting.
Mon stage à Paris
I spent some time in Paris as a trainee, living in a little flat in Montmartre. I couldn’t believe my luck. I worked really hard doing all sorts of things but also had a great experience both professionally and personally.
Then I qualified into the Corporate group in September 1991. They were exciting times and the pace was frenetic, but there were lots of us at it, and the team spirit was good: a mixture of camaraderie through shared suffering and pride to be doing really the best work around. I was learning at an incredible rate and making contacts that have remained with me ever since. Many of the clients I worked for back then remain clients now. You meet people and, when you get on with them, and can make them laugh (even if it’s at you), a feeling of loyalty is created. And I think clients can tell when you are committed to getting a good result for them.
Life as an associate
As an associate, I never had an end goal or plan, but simply did the work that I was asked to do in order to gain the broadest experience possible. I worked on a huge variety of things, and consequently got to see how a lot of different kinds of work have common features but with a different emphasis. If you understand the different building blocks, you can turn your hand to many different areas.
Joining the partnership
When I became a partner I realised that wasn’t an end but a beginning. I’m responsible for quite a number of our client relationships, but also oversee our private equity practice. Looking after clients is about understanding their specific needs and making sure we deliver them, but also about good communication. It’s not enough to be technically strong, you also need to commit to delivering their objectives.
Continuing to learn
I’ve now been a partner for more than 20 years – but it was only recently that I realised I was no longer one of the young partners! I still approach my job with the same enthusiasm as I did then, but the work has progressed from a heavy focus on the mechanics and infrastructure of transactions to helping the firm manage its key client relationships. It’s rewarding to have a role in which your input can make a huge difference – five minutes with a client can sometimes be all it takes to change a view or solve a problem.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to boards and senior executives, which has given me a keen interest in the inner workings of corporate decision making, how business sits within a wider context, and the implications and impacts on the real world.
Working in a law firm isn’t just about providing services to clients. A law firm is an independent economic operator, which has obligations and responsibilities. Both our firm and our clients' businesses are made up of real people with personal views about what businesses should and shouldn’t do.
That’s led me to have an interest in what people call responsible business or sustainability, where business interacts with individuals, with society, life and the environment. Trying to ensure that all of these things are in harmony with business objectives is one of the greatest challenges of our time.
Responsibility inside the firm
Accepting the wider responsibility that the firm has also extends to looking after its own. It’s accepted that it’s sensible to look after your physical health by eating well and exercising, but there is still a stigma around discussing mental health. I am a supporter of Thrive, the firm’s mental health and wellbeing network, and we aim to normalise conversations around mental health and acknowledge how vital it is to look after this.
Helping to make changes
My early career was in retrospect quite focused on myself – it was about developing as a lawyer for my own ambitions. But there came a point where I wanted to help others by lending my experience to various initiatives outside the workplace. None of this would be possible without the varied experiences that have come my way as a practising lawyer with a brilliant group of clients.
The whole area of sustainability is central to business strategy and thinking. Almost by accident, my practice has evolved to focus on one of the most pressing issues facing business in my generation. I look forward to seeing the huge transformations that businesses will be forced to make over the coming years and hopefully having an involvement in the changes that make this possible.