Chris Saul: When retirement is not an option
BCKR recently welcomed Slaughter and May’s former Senior Partner, Chris Saul, to share how he has successfully cultivated a new working life away from law.
In the months leading up to his retirement Chris spoke to a lot of people. He adopted four guiding principles to his life after Slaughter and May.
1. Retirement was not an option
2. He wanted to stay in the business world
3. He wanted a balanced involvement with the not for profit world
4. He wanted to maintain an element of teaching and contact with the next generation
So, what job in the business world?
• He did not want to go in-house. He didn’t want to do lawyering anymore
• He ruled out investment banking as he felt it is hard for ‘old’ lawyers to go into a business with ‘new’ investment bankers
• Head hunting didn’t appeal
• The NED circuit didn’t appeal as he was well aware that, as a white male, it would be hard to make significant progress in the current climate
So – what about starting his own business? He examined hard the areas he had enjoyed during his career at Slaughters.
• Finding consensus around the deal table. The theatre of bringing warring parties together was fulfilling.
• Consensus. As Senior Partner at Slaughters he dealt with a lot of ‘big’ personalities. The conflicts could be fraught but the process of working with those personalities and coming to consensus was satisfying.
• Strategy, performance and the governance piece.
o Which practice areas to cover
o New client initiatives
o Succession in each of the practice areas
o Levers of profitability
So, the notion was to build a business that would advise businesses at moments of transition and change. Not as a lawyer (he has taken himself of the role) but as a weathered individual and also to be a moderator of differences – bringing high level judgement informed by experience.
In October last year he established Christopher Saul Associates. The core team being Chris and his highly valued PA Laura Biggs.
He has no office – decided it wasn’t necessary. He works from home and sometimes from 20 Grosvenor Street by invite of KPMG. He now lives a quite itinerant existence.
The idea is to be a sounding board and empathetic ear.
Currently his target market is:
o Boards of listed companies
o Stakeholder family businesses
o Professional Services firms
His offering is:
o An independent view to a board at particular moments of difficulty, such as during a deal or litigation or to react to an activist shareholder. Being the oily rag.
o To be a sounding board on a one to one basis for the Chair or SID
o To reconcile different views of stakeholders in family businesses over tricky issues
o Legacy issues in the modern world
o Assessing management success in professional service firms e.g. Headhunting firms.
Below are some examples of the work he is currently doing:
• In the listed space – he is advising a SID in a FTSE 100 company who is dealing with difficulties between a Chair and the Executive team – a weighty responsibility which falls upon the SID and can be a very lonely place. This individual needs someone who understands corporate governance, code expectations and directors’ duties.
• He is helping the Chair and Board of a FTSE company facing difficult quasi litigation. They have legal advice but need someone to kick the tyres on strategy and approach at key moments in the litigation.
• In the family space, he is helping a 5th generation business where two brothers have fallen out. The younger brother has been squeezed from the board but is still a shareholder.
• Also helping a family business with family constitution advice. 8 cousins looking at their inheritance – how to take charge of it? Who is qualified to step into the business? Are the parents really thinking about this when making decisions about the future of the business?
• In the professional services space he is working with an Indian company on strategy. India is a very dynamic environment to work in with 350 of the top 500 businesses “promoter” led. This may prove a fruitful arena.
Progress so far.
His proposition seems to be finding traction.
He finds it engaging and fascinating.
It is appropriately scary – there is a risk in putting yourself out there.
Would like to get some younger people into his business in time.
Where does the work come from?
Network. Keeping in touch and remaining relevant to your network is important. Chris keeps his core governance knowledge up to date so he has something to add to conversations.
He gets referrals from
• boutique investment banks particularly re succession and Rem
• Private client law firms such as Withers and Stewarts
• Private banks
• Head hunters – though on reflection they might see him more as a competitor
The not-for-profit space.
• He is on the board of The Leverhulme Trust established by Lord Leverhulme, former Chairman of Unilever. He endowed a trust to provide funding for new ideas – all levels of research across all age brackets – supporting academics
• He was invited to join the board of the English National Ballet and is Chair of the Governance committee
• He is also a member of the Hearings Committee of The Takeover Panel
On the teaching side, he does some M&A classes for CASS and Saïd Business School which he finds to be a very dynamic and interactive environment.
He thought about the traditional style of mediation and took a couple of courses. The ADR Group mediation course and the CEDR course (which was the better in his opinion). He concluded that the process of winning the trust of two diametrically different people is a very interesting process and something he would like to do more of.
At £6,000 is what somewhat expensive but better than the course at ADR. He undertook 2 observations with Bill Wood QC and Andrew Payton.
The world of mediation is small – only 20-25 mediators in last 15 years and they are all very much embedded in the system. All significant mediation firms will look for recognised brands which makes it a challenge to building a business. As a non-disputes practitioner it is a harder sell.
Chris concluded that mediation is a lonely world and getting into pure mediation is hard. If you are part of a chambers with a clerk it is probably easier. Mediation is a great skill and is fascinating but a hard post legal route to take. His ambition would be to conduct 3-5 per year.
He feels transactional lawyers are better placed to deal with family businesses. Non-litigators need to sell their mediation skill better – transaction lawyer skills are very relevant.
What were his biggest challenges:
• Will you be lonely? Having spent 39 years at Slaughter and May, that risk was scary. Chris didn’t want to go into another political environment so decided it would be easier to go solo first. He generally has 3 to 4 meeting per day. The thing he misses most is having a sounding board.
• How will you handle the IT? Thankfully his PA Laura sorts that side of things for him
What have been your learnings after a year?
• People are generous and kind. He has been touched by the willingness of people to talk, share ideas, give feedback.
• It is important to generate content and circulate it to people to remain relevant.
• Network, network, network – in a non-annoying way. Make sure you keep in touch with the people you know well.
• Always look ahead – in the words of Ferrari “What is your best car? My next car”. You need to constantly improve.
Given the decisions about the route you took – why is it that there is no Robey Warshaw equivalent for lawyers?
While there is room for advice around governance, to build a firm around that means running the risk of becoming a law firm. He wanted to differentiate himself from law firms and investment bankers.
How have you advertised yourself?
He looked at Robey Warshaw and other websites like Fingleton Associates and decided to go for an understated one page website stating his proposition.
He is also on Linked-In which allows you to connect.
He also takes on speaking engagements and tries to get on the agendas for the right kinds of conference to raise his profile.
Did you analyse your competitors? Where do you fit in?
Adjacent to Robey Warshaw but differentiation is important – hence the notion of the legal tinge i.e. the governance piece.
He has tried to develop a suite of products that is not too dispersed – quite focused. Providing advice with 3 sub-divisions of that advice and keeping away from banks.
What have you learnt about boards?
Deft chairing is vital but not frequently found. The role of the Chair is managing the debate. Steering conversation and knowing when the debate is secure and then being able to summarise. A shepherder of debate.
Pre-board preparation. Ensure difficult board members engaged and heard prior to the entering the board room. Emotional intelligence is crucial.