How an explosive setback put one legal firm on the path to international growth

Elizabeth Fournier
TWENTY years ago, you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone prepared to bet that Norton Rose – one of London’s oldest City law firm’s – would eventually rank in the top five largest international practices in the world.

Unless perhaps you’d asked Peter Martyr, the firm’s group chief executive. Back in 1992, he was a partner at the firm specialising in dispute litigation. But despite not joining the firm’s board until 1996, talking to Martyr these days at Norton Rose’s More London offices, one gets the impression that even then he had a keen eye on the group’s future.

“In the eighties and early nineties there really wasn’t a lot of distinction between us and most of the other City firms,” he explains. “At that time, not a lot of financial data was made public, but everyone was spoken of in the same breath.”

That all changed in the spring of 1992, when an IRA car bomb went off close to the firm’s offices near the Baltic Exchange.

Though the impact was limited that time, just a year later the firm was rocked by the second Bishopsgate bombing which caused £350m of damage to the office – forcing Norton Rose into temporary accommodation and holding back profits for several years as it hunkered down and rebuilt.

“At the time we perhaps didn’t realise what a massive impact it had, but it happened three days before the end of the financial year in the days before you had computer records of everything,” says Martyr. “We spent three or four years really nursing our wounds – just staying together and getting back into business – and at that time what is now called the Magic Circle really put on a spurt of growth and went international. We just weren’t able to compete.”

Fast-forward to 2012, and Norton Rose has just announced revenues of $1.32bn (£858m) for the year to 30 April – figures that not only include international offices in jurisdictions from Amsterdam to Tokyo, but also for the first time its recent tie-ups in Canada and South Africa.

Taken on a like-for-like basis – comparing figures from each individual firm for the previous year when they weren’t part of the group – the turnover figure is up nine per cent, an impressively high increase given how much these international deals cost to pull off.

So how does a firm that entered the new millennium looking very much like it had been left behind suddenly race ahead of its competitors and become one of the biggest firms in the world?

“By the time I became managing partner in 2002 I was pretty convinced that we needed to do things differently because we were trying too much to be like somebody else rather than be like ourselves,” says Martyr.

In his first term as chief executive, Martyr certainly put his stamp on the firm – introducing five industry-focused sector groups around which expansion could focus, and later moving the London offices into buildings designed by trophy architect Norman Foster, reuniting Norton Rose’s employees in a brand new HQ south of the river.

“It was a very cathartic thing coming here,” explains Martyr. “I think the partnership felt like now we had our own place, our position in the world so we could just do things our own way.”

The renewed momentum saw the firm opening a steady stream of offices around the globe, but the move that really put Norton Rose on the map was its tie-up with Deacons in January 2010, making it the first international legal practice to combine with a Australian national firm.

It was a deal that attracted criticism at the time, but which Martyr insists paved the way for an influx of law firms into the country.

“At the time there was a lot of faint praise going around – people saying ‘I’m sure there’s a reason they’ve done it’ but not shouting about what that might be.

“Two years later there is only one major Australian law firm that has not either merged or entered an association – it’s been quite extraordinary.”

Just 18 months later Martyr switched his focus from east to both west and south, creating Norton Rose Canada by combining with Montreal-based Ogilvy Renault, and Norton Rose South Africa through a tie-up with Deneys Reitz in Johannesburg. It’s untrodden ground for most law firms, and a tale of expansion of which Martyr is clearly proud.

“Lawyers are very good at following what others do,” he says. “We still had that ambition to be a global law firm and compete with the biggest and the best in the world but we’ve had to think harder about doing in a different way.”

But despite the undeniably international ambitions of the group, he’s also keen to keep London – still the firm’s biggest office by far ­– at the centre of his vision.

“It’s a powerful place,” says Martyr. “I have a huge belief in the City of London. It is a fantastically flexible and vibrant place and I am confident it will remain one of the leading cities of the world.”

As Martyr began his latest term as chief executive on 1 January this year, he consolidated 10 years at the top with yet another merger, adding the firm’s first Latin American and central Asian offices by bringing Calgary’s Macleod Dixon under the Norton Rose Canada brand.

It’s been a busy decade for the ambitious litigator. But though he is tight-lipped on how much longer he will lead the firm, surely by now no one would bet against Martyr spending many more years at the top.

AGE: 57

WORK HISTORY: Joined Norton Rose as a trainee in 1977, and specialised in shipping litigation on qualification; became a partner in 1985 and joined the management committee in 1996. Specialised in dispute resolution, including work linked to the collapse of the National Bank of Brunei and the subsequent litigation involving 53 multi-national banks, and conducting the insurance litigation in connection with the collapse of the Maxwell empire. Was elected group chief executive in 2002 and has held that position ever since, including relection from January 2012 for another three-year term.

PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS: Member of the Baltic Exchange, the International Bar Association, the City of London Solicitors’ Company, the British Insurance Law Association and the Institute of Directors.

FAMILY: Married and lives in Teddington, south west London.

HOBBIES: Enjoys skiing, wine and classic cars.