LAW WITHOUT GRAVITY: Olswang is the hippest law firm in Britain - a cool portfolio of communications clients; sleek, colour-coordinated Covent Garden offices; a fast-track promotion policy that gives women an equal run at the senior jobs. All very Ally Mc

LAW WITHOUT GRAVITY: Olswang is the hippest law firm in Britain - a cool portfolio of communications clients; sleek, colour-coordinated Covent Garden offices; a fast-track promotion policy that gives women an equal run at the senior jobs. All very Ally Mc

by STEPHEN COOK
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Jonathan Goldstein is horrified by something he has just seen at the gym - a manager throwing an appointments book at a receptionist. 'We just wouldn't put up with that here. Whoever you were, if you did that, you'd be out,' he says flatly. 'We are aggressive in pursuit of our corporate ambitions, but not in dealing with each other. We don't have screaming and banging of doors. A fundamental point is to treat people with respect and make them realise they're an essential part of the business, whether they're a tea lady, a partner, an assistant solicitor or a secretary.'

Welcome to the right-on world of Olswang, the hippest legal firm in town and the closest the British legal system will ever get to Ally McBeal or LA Law. A world where the purple shirts of the receptionists match the covers of the corporate literature, and where, in the words of one frequent visitor, 'even the biscuits have been thought about'. (Purple is the most fashionable of colours with which to brand yourself. Everything from Harry Potter to the new-look Bradford & Bingley is in Emperor Julius Caesar's fave hue.) Clients are hip and high-profile too - MTV, Miramax, Demon Internet, MGM, the Guardian, HIT Entertainment. The offices are cool and contemporary, and the firm's youthful, inclusive air is more akin to the advertising business than to the sober sphere of the law.

Goldstein fits the image nicely: chief executive at 34, tall, restlessly energetic, ever so slightly geeky. He paces a conference room in the firm's Covent Garden offices, where every place at the table has a purple Olswang-emblazoned ballpoint, where the coffee is fresh and the biscuits are tiny mince pies if it's Christmas or small chocolate eggs if it's Easter. Goldstein joined as an assistant solicitor in 1992 and has soared. He talks about growth and what makes Olswang different.

Ten years ago the firm was not much to write home about: just Simon Olswang & Company, a firm at London's Marble Arch with 30 or so lawyers specialising in film and television rights. Changes came thick and fast: new partners, new expertise in telecommunications and technology, the move to Covent Garden with a snappier name. Then, a crucial decision five years ago: to go for a big impact in its specialised sector rather than spread the risks by being a generalist firm with a lot of strings to its bow.

The decision paid off. Revenues have grown from pounds 14 million in 1997 to pounds 35 million in 2000 and a projected pounds 48 million to April this year. New expertise has been added in taxation, litigation, human resources and corporate transactions so that clients - mainly in the media, telecoms and technology - can be offered a comprehensive service. Now there are 400 staff, 230 of them lawyers, and Olswang attracts more than its fair share of plaudits.

The latest edition of the Chambers Guide to the Legal Profession names it as law company of the year. 'More than any other law firm, Olswang have seen their opportunities and grabbed them,' says Michael Chambers, the book's publisher. Commercial Lawyer magazine recently called Olswang the fastest-growing UK law firm and one of the most 'happening' places to work.

'They do live up to the hype,' says Fiona Callister, deputy editor of The Lawyer. 'They've been better than most firms at understanding clients' businesses - not just drawing up the contract but knowing the background.' She adds, however, that they're not necessarily better lawyers.

But the company's attempt to sharpen up the dowdy image of the law isn't universally appreciated by other practitioners. Says an experienced commercial lawyer: 'They are massively successful at self-promotion. Whether they're consistently better at the provision of legal services I would doubt.

Life there for a lawyer is not much different than in most firms. What does different mean? Do secretaries have their own offices? That would be impressive. As for treating people with respect, one hopes that happens everywhere. Olswang are just too self-consciously trendy for me.'

Goldstein is sensitive to such criticism, but not thrown by it. 'People say we're too small, too upstart-ish, very aggressive,' he says. 'But the fact that we're upsetting people shows that we're on their landscape.

The only thing that's worse than being criticised is being ignored - a relative newcomer is always going to be under attack. I find it more flattering when I hear we're used as a yardstick by other firms in the way that we operate and the way we project ourselves and the PR that we get.'

He says the PR, the purple shirts and the biscuits are only one important aspect of what makes Olswang different. 'If you look at the core essentials of our business, in the way we treat people and interact as partners, in the way we project ourselves and manage the business, I think you'll find there's a marked difference between us and the vast majority of other law firms.'

Goldstein's main theme is that only two things really matter - your people and your clients. 'You get very little loyalty from clients, and you shouldn't expect it - the market is very competitive and if they don't get the service they need and deserve, they will leave you. So it's fundamentally important to ensure that you're focused on providing the best service at all times, and you can only do that with a stable, happy, motivated, respected and incentivised employee base.

'It's the way you treat people at an individual human level that makes the difference. What is great about this place is that there is no distinction between the operations side and the fee-earning side. There is no patronising, there is no condescension, and the firm doesn't allow people, particularly the partners, to have airs and graces. It's not a culture of equality when it comes to remuneration, but we do expect that people don't get too self-important.

'We haven't got any prima donnas in this place,' Goldstein insists, 'yet we've got some fantastically successful professionals. And there are enough people round here who pride themselves on preserving what we've created to stand up and say: 'That's not the way we behave - that is not an Olswang way of dealing with something.' There's a very simple test, you know - if you don't like the thought of going to the pub with someone and having a beer or something with them, you won't recruit them.'

Olswang has a faster decision-making process than most law firms, claims Goldstein, and the policy of openness reduces the scope for the backstabbing and backbiting that bedevil so many workplaces. Minutes of management group meetings go to all partners, and general information about the firm's financial progress is shared with all staff in regular briefings and discussions.

This egalitarian ethos has implications far beyond the legal business, and it is worth noting that companies in other traditional professions, such as accountancy, are also starting to change the rules and loosen up a bit.

As Goldstein winds up, an entirely different figure enters. He's older and smaller, wears a softer suit and less formal tie, reclines comfortably in his chair. This is Simon Olswang, who started his career among waistcoats and stiff collars, went to California in the 1970s and saw the light, then came back to start a different kind of law firm. If Goldstein is the boy wonder, Olswang is now the guru, and as a guru he smiles quizzically at the word 'serious', likes to pretend that age doesn't matter, and loves the concept of empowerment.

'Our clients expect us to be professional and do a good job, but serious? We play the game and play it hard, but I don't think people go around being serious here. If you want to get to the root of it, my daughters and wife would never let me be serious. It's salutary to have a home background which would never allow me to get too pompous. It's just not on. And it's the same for Jonathan - I happen to know that.'

Serious or not, Simon Olswang has attitudes not commonly associated with the law in this country: he doesn't recognise the distinction between lawyers and business people, and he believes in the rapid promotion of young people. He argues that in the fast-changing global world of the media, clients don't always know where they want to go until the lawyers have checked out the legal geography and told them which routes are open. 'An example of this is IT - you don't know what you want to do until you've got some vision from the IT of what's possible.

'So it's a two-way process, very much a partnership - you need your lawyer, and the lawyer needs the business person. We're a communications firm, but actually it's all property - real property or intellectual property. Intellectual property underpins all of our practice in communications, media, entertainment, technology. Everyone who's doing business in that space - which is now nearly the whole economy - is navigating through a labyrinth of changing rules, structures and regulations without which what they do has literally no economic value.'

This puts a premium on understanding your clients' business in greater depth than is common even in the big commercial law firms. Olswang says he would worry about anyone in his firm who demonstrated the traditional lawyer's attitude exemplified by the judge who once asked in court: 'Who are the Beatles?' He tells of a corporate visitor who remarked on the genuine interest that Olswang lawyers showed in their clients' world: 'I said: 'How can that be a defining feature? It's so completely obvious.' And he said: 'No, it's not obvious - it isn't the case everywhere.'

'Personally, I can't imagine how you'd come in every day if you didn't have that. We're back to this sense of partnership with the businessperson, not seeing a division. We have training programmes here that try to give people more insight into the business they work with and give them the big picture. And we read the trade press every bit as much as we read the legal journals,' he insists.

The promotion of young people was something that Simon Olswang first encountered in California. He employed young lawyers when he returned to the UK and gave them opportunities at a time when you still had to work 10 years in most firms before you got a sniff of a partnership. 'That's very protective and defensive, and you can't grow like that,' he says. 'The opposite is to take the view that the moment you can do something, you want someone else to do it, which means you're empowering them and liberating yourself to do something else. There was something my wife once said to me: 'If you can read, you can cook.' With an inquiring mind and dedication, there's almost nothing you can't do.

'Empowerment is an incredibly potent recipe that has worked for this firm,' Olswang continues. 'We've got examples of people coming out of the general office and rising into significant positions. Not always, not every day - but it happens. No glass ceilings because you're a woman, no glass ceilings because you're only 28, or because you're 54.

'The fact that Jonathan is now running this firm and I'm not is part of this empowerment, part of this policy of making yourself redundant. But it's also a fact that I'm still here. This is all part of the value system the clients see and, although it's not generally articulated in the way I'm trying to do now, it's all mixed together in something that's recognisably Olswang. And that's evolving. Olswang today is the same as, and different from, Olswang five years ago.' (Today it has a 60% share in Long Acre Partners, a corporate finance house, launched with JP Morgan.)

So how old is he? 'I don't go into details about my age because people ... all right, mid-50s. If you really want to know, I'm 57. But we don't do much age here. We don't spend any time on it. It's not how old you are or how young you are - it's who you are and what you do. I think that Britain, in the legal profession, wastes people. I'm not saying that Olswang is hugely different from the rest, but it's different on the margins. If you do things 5% differently, that's a very big difference.'

IN THE PURPLE - A WORKPLACE WHERE WOMEN FEEL AT HOME

Olswang claims to be one of the first law firms where women can make successful careers. One who did is Lisbeth Savill (left), a 42-year-old Australian who introduces herself with a firm handshake, a purple calling-card and a smile with a glint of ice in it.

She specialised in banking, finance and capital markets with Linklaters, a law firm with 350 partners, before moving to Olswang 12 years ago. She now heads the important media and communications group and is one of a 10-strong management committee.

'I decided I didn't want to be in a big machine any more,' she says. 'Olswang is different from other London law firms - it's physically different because the place is more modern and the people here are fairly normal human beings, the kind of people you'd like to have a drink with.

'You also get to know everybody. With some firms, it's like going to work in a city. With 350 partners or more, you won't have a lot to say to them. There are 45 here, and things are very open and transparent.

'The firm treats women as equally as possible. Forty per cent of the partners are women. In my area of the practice, three-quarters of the fee-earners are women. I have two children and work full-time, so I take more holiday - up to 10 weeks. Other women work part-time or four days a week.

'But clients have deadlines, so most of the fee-earners are full-time. It's not the kind of work you can jobshare - clients don't want two people to be brought up to speed. So it's a matter of judgment. We have one partner working two days at the moment. She doesn't do much fee-earning, but is enormously helpful on the management side.'

TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

February 2001: Advises HIT Entertainment, owner of kids TV character Bob the Builder, on its pounds 314 million acquisition of Lyric Corporation, owner of Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

November 2000: A prestigious client, Kelvin Mackenzie's The Wireless Group, defects to rival firm Rosenblatt.

October 2000: Advised by Olswang, bagless vacuum company Dyson triumphs over arch-rival Hoover in the High Court. Hoover's new cleaner, the HTV, is found to infringe a Dyson patent.

February 2000: Acts for giant-killing Czech brewer Budejovicky Budvar against US heavyweight Anheuser-Busch. The court rules that both companies can use the disputed name Budweiser.

January 2000: Negotiates acquisition of broadcast rights to Test and domestic cricket for Channel 4, dealing another blow to BBC TV sport.

November 1999: Represents Dame Julie Andrews in libel action against the Daily Mail and OK! magazine. Those publications withdraw allegation that she's taking drugs for depression, and pay undisclosed damages.

June 1997: Defends the Guardian newspaper against libel action brought by former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken MP - the infamous 'sword of truth' case. Aitken is later found guilty of perjury and jailed.

October 1996: Another successful defence of the Guardian in another libel case brought by a Tory MP - Neil Hamilton. His case collapses and the paper prints the headline 'A Liar and a Cheat'.

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