Law without Gravity

By Cook, Stephen | Management Today, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Law without Gravity


Cook, Stephen, Management Today


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 McBeal or This Life. Those are just television, though. This lot are so real-world they've even got their own corporate finance arm.

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 newlook 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 [pound]14 million in 1997 to [pound]35 million in 2000 and a projected [pound]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. …

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