Magic Circle deal star Nigel Boardman’s next act

James Booth
Nigel Boardman is set to retire next April

Slaughter and May deal star Nigel Boardman is approaching the second act of his career with the same strategic approach that made him the most renowned English corporate lawyer of the last 20 years.

When he retires from Slaughters’ partnership at the end of April to become a part-time consultant with the firm it will end a remarkable run that has included acting for the government on the financial crisis, fighting off Philip Green’s two attempts to buy Marks & Spencer and representing Arsenal Football Club (where he is a season ticket-holder).

Looking back at his long career Boardman, who is also a judge of the City A.M. Awards in November, says: “Acting for the government on the financial crisis stands out,” an experience he describes as “stressful” but “exhilarating”.

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“It was a close-run thing getting the package in place before, in particular, the Royal Bank of Scotland ran out of money,” he says.

Marks & Spencer’s ex-head of legal, Robert Ivens, who worked with Boardman on the defence of Philip Green’s attempted takeovers in 1999 and 2004, says Boardman is “perfect for the embattled CEO and the embattled board. There is no better person not just from the point of view of his skills as a leading M&A lawyer, but his sense of assurance that has made him such a popular hire.”

Ivens remembers: “The first time he was introduced to M&S was in the first bid, the board were in complete shock – being threatened with a takeover was simply not what M&S was used to. I was responsible for introducing Slaughters to M&S.

“I took him up to the conference room where most of the board were discussing the news that Green had announced he was considering a bid for M&S. There was a feeling of mild panic in that room, a closeted room, fairly airless – you can imagine the atmosphere.

“The door opens, Nigel walks in, takes in one second the whole context and stands ramrod straight and says ‘Nigel Boardman – Slaughter and May,’ and it was like there was a feeling almost immediately that this is slightly more under control.

“He sat opposite the chief executive Peter Salsbury and immediately engaged him in conversation, they understood each other from the word go, and from that moment on M&S started to marshal its defence.”

Nearly 20 years on Boardman is still a full-time deal lawyer. At 67 this is highly unusual in the Magic Circle, where the lockstep pay system requires older partners to move on to free-up space for younger partners, with the result that 55 is considered the typical age ceiling.

“I’ll be 68 next month and while I still enjoy transactions and feel I could carry on, if I want to develop a career through my 70s I probably need to make a transition to build up that portfolio now.”

Boardman, who says that “thinking things through is normally a good idea”, has an eight-point plan for the next stage of his career. Goals include better physical fitness (“that means dropping transactional work”), keeping a cultural interest (he is a deputy chair of the British Museum), keeping an intellectual interest (he was appointed as a non-executive director at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in July) and giving something back (he is a vice president at Save the Children).

While this sort of portfolio career is common for former chief executives it is relatively unusual for corporate lawyers – but Boardman is not your typical corporate lawyer.

“My plan was to be the best lawyer in the world at what I do, that was my plan and that was a flat-out, full-time commitment,” he says.

Asked how he went about pursuing his goal, Boardman deadpans….“effort”.

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One (possibly apocryphal) story that illustrates his high expectations tells of a trainee lawyer sharing an office with Boardman, who at eight o’clock stood up and reached for his coat

“Are you cold?” Boardman is said to have inquired.

Boardman says the “fantastic platform” Slaughters provides has played a key role in his career.

“There is a brilliant client base here, an ability to follow the things that interest you and build them,” he says.

He says his varied career at the firm has made him a better lawyer. As well as M&A he has practised debt capital

markets law, banking law, sports law and most recently art law.

“You are not stuck on a treadmill,” he says of his broad focus. “It is more challenging and interesting, you stay more alive with it, you have to think more.”

Asked for the one piece of advice he would give to someone at the start of their career, he pauses and says: “Volunteer for everything. Make a commitment and go for it.” It is a mantra that has certainly stood him in good stead.