It is hard to escape the feeling that Slaughter and May’s Nigel Boardman is ever so slightly bored. Given that he is London’s top mergers and acquisitions (M&A) lawyer, and that we are still in the midst of a bitter recession which has led to a dramatic reduction in deal-making, this is not exactly surprising.
Boardman met City A.M. in the tasteful first floor meeting room at Slaughter & May, the last sizeable blue-blooded law firm in the Square Mile. Although work is ticking over nicely, things are not as “frenetic” as they were up until late 2007, he points out, with obvious regret. The reality, needless to say, is that Boardman – who personally acts for eight of the FTSE 100, including Rio Tinto and Marks & Spencer – likes business to be frenetic.
The tall, lean lawyer prides himself on being able to cover most aspects of law – as opposed to the current fashion, which is for highly specialised lawyers – but admits he most likes to deal with emergencies, such as a defence against a hostile takeover or advising against insolvency.
East Midlands-born Boardman says: “These are situations where you can add value to the service you give to your clients through your experience. These are times when a company is most at crisis – when a firm becomes a takeover target or when it runs out of money.”
He adds: “There is no time to plot out a leisurely strategy. You have to work quickly and these situations demand a lot from you physically, intellectually and even emotionally. For instance, you may often have to reassure a client that a course of action you have planned is the right one. It is a bit like being in the trenches and you, and everyone around you, are tested.”
The son of Lord Boardman, the Conservative chief secretary to the Treasury in Edward Heath’s 1970s government who later chaired NatWest, he has this month been advising Rio Tinto on its joint venture with BHP Billiton to share the mining costs of iron ore production in the Philbra, Western Australia.
But he is used to having much more on his plate. Last October, he acted for the government when it hammered out its £37bn bailout for Royal Bank of Scotland, HBoS and Lloyds TSB.
And in recent years he has twice defended Marks & Spencer against takeover attempts by billionaire retailer Philip Green, has regularly represented City entrepreneur Hugh Osmond, has acted for Shell when it bought Enterprise Oil and advised Reuters on its £8bn merger with Thomson in 2007. He is clearly a dealmaker extraordinaire.
No City lawyer advises more FTSE 100 firms, no lawyer has been voted Best Business Lawyer in trade title Chambers & Partners’ annual survey more times than Boardman. He was even voted the City’s best-dressed lawyer by Esquire.
So it is understandable to see why he finds the doldrums of the current downturn a little too quiet for him.
Boardman, who speaks quietly in short, precise sentences that exude gravitas, says: “M&A activity largely tracks stock market prices. Two years ago activity was frenetic, but it has dropped off by more than 50 per cent since the peak of summer 2007. I don’t see the return of cash bids over the next few months.”
His firm acts for around a third of the FTSE 100 and about a quarter of the FTSE 250, but he says currently even the country’s biggest firms are struggling to get together finances to cut anything but small deals. He explains: “FTSE 100 companies are in a position to get loans and make small deals. But there is no appetite from them to do big deals. And banks would probably not lend them the money if they wanted to.”
However, he says the finances of the magic circle firm, which employs 1,300 and is made up of 650 lawyers including 125 partners, have held up well. Boardman says: “We make no promises. But we have made no redundancies so far. And we have not deferred taking on any graduate lawyers.” Slaughters, an old-fashioned partnership, doesn’t disclose its results, but trade estimates say the firm’s sales were up 14 per cent at £419m last year, while partners received an average compensation of £1.5m, up 12 per cent from a year ago. However, in April, the firm, like many other rivals, brought in a salary freeze across the partnership for the rest of the year.
Boardman is guarded on exactly what he does to earn his salary. But in trying to illustrate how he spends his time he returns to his favourite subject – a takeover deal. He says: “During a bid myself and my team would try to spend time trying to understand the target board. Getting to know what they want, gathering information on them. We would get to know the regulations surrounding that industry. Our aim would be to make sure that what our client company wants is possible in law.”
And when Boardman is involved in a big case he is famous for racking up 80-hour weeks. There is a famous story told about Boardman working late into the night in his office with a junior lawyer. When the junior reaches for his coat, Boardman coolly enquires if he is cold. Is that story true?
Boardman laughs: “That was Paul Vickers who has since worked as general counsel at Hutchinson 3G and company secretary at publisher Pearson, who remains a friend. It was simply the case that there was a lot to do that night and we had to plough on. He understood when I explained that.”
Boardman has been a Slaughters lifer since he joined the firm after Bristol University and Law College in 1973, though he did take one notable sabbatical. He left the practice for a year in 1975 to join merchant bank Kleinwort Benson.
He says: “I was a junior lawyer and I was doing a lot of mundane work that I thought was not adding value to the clients I worked for. I thought banking would take me closer to decision-making.”
But he adds: “I liked it there and learnt a lot from the people I worked with. But banking then – before the Americans came in and shook up the industry – was very relationship-based and it did not have the technical underpinning that I wanted in a profession that I wanted to follow.” So Boardman returned to his corporate alma mater and worked his way up, focusing on M&A matters, and into his pre-eminent position in corporate finance.
He says: “We are through the financial crisis and into the recession. I am optimistic about this being not a very long recession, perhaps we will see signs of coming out of it in the middle of next year.”
Despite last week’s dire second quarter GDP figures, many would agree with Boardman. But the intense dealmaking of the bubble years, which Boardman and his colleagues enjoyed, is unlikely to return. It will be interesting to see how they adapt to a calmer, less frenetic era.
CV Nigel Boardman
Work: 1973: joined S&M as trainee solicitor; 1975: qualified and left for merchant bank Kleinwort Benson; 1976: returned to S&M as assistant solicitor; 1982: made partner; 1996: head of firm’s corporate department; 2004: stood down as department head to concentrate on clients
Education: Ampleforth College; Bristol University where he read History; College of Law
Family: Divorced, six children
Lives: Chelsea and a farmhouse in France
Hobbies: An Arsenal fan, he acts as club lawyer