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Sailing Close to the Wind3 May 2019

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An Interview with two of our Founding Partners, Martin Watson and Alastair Farley.

“I was working in my office when Alastair came in and, in an almost casual way, floated the idea of setting up on our own.” Martin Watson, The Spirit of Enterprise, 25 years of Watson Farley & Williams

Casual maybe, but Alastair was convinced there was enormous potential in such a move. As Martin says, “During the 70s shipbuilding was moving from the UK to Europe and the Far East. Owners, operators and their financiers were looking for legal services to be provided in their own jurisdiction and WFW responded to that market – very successfully.” Nevertheless, for founding partners, Martin, Alastair and Geoffrey Williams and the others that followed, they were taking a big risk.

Alastair takes up the story, “We moved at break-neck speed, finding new premises, the latest WP system, staff and the money to pay for everything. There was an infectious enthusiasm and spirit of adventure as well as lots of hard work. We left Norton Rose in tears and some good friends behind, many who, I am happy to say, remained that way.”

“The collegiate attitude and selflessness of the staff was remarkable”

It’s first and foremost the people that Martin and Alastair remember about the early years of the firm. “The confidence that we were shown by so many stakeholders, from clients to staff, who were prepared to take the risk on a new venture; the unfailing enthusiasm and commitment of all those working at WFW in the early years; their great sense of humour and the feeling of camaraderie that persisted in what was then a small but exciting work environment,” says Martin. Alastair agrees. “The collegiate attitude and selflessness of the staff” and appreciation that “even major institutions were prepared to align themselves with a firm with no reputation was remarkable.”

Focusing on client needs was paramount.

They see these qualities still reflected in the culture of the firm today which has “not only been able to retain many of those characteristics that brought it success in the early years – entrepreneurism and client-focus – but also increasingly the wellbeing of its staff globally that makes it a great place to work,” says Martin. Alastair thinks “the entrepreneurial and fiercely independent culture that defined the firm in the early days has continued – more offices, a real international practice and no tie-ups with other firms.” So what has changed? “Exponential growth (revenue, personnel and international reach) and all the concomitant changes in management and administrative processes to support,” says Martin. Alastair agrees, adding, “when we started we had an informal rule that no one should spend more than 10% of their time on administration!” However, he concedes the effect of compliance and regulatory issues on the practice of the law, as well as the impact of more detailed conflict rules.

Memorable cases include involvement in a major consolidation in the cruise sector, resulting in the creation of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd – #2 cruise-vessel operator in the world – and helping 1650 Lloyds names recover most of their enormous losses, leading to the negotiation of the Reconstruction and Renewal Project which is the foundation of Lloyds today.

“The entrepreneurial and fiercely independent culture that defined the firm in the early days has continued”

Martin and Alastair have been inspired throughout their careers by both former colleagues and clients, many of whom, Alastair says, “shared their dreams and inspired their advisers to help them fulfil them.” Their best memories of WFW? For Martin, it was the continued support of clients who moved with them to WFW, plus “the pleasure at getting through the first year solvent – and with a small profit.” Alastair remembers “the things people did to help each other out; the famous Christmas parties; and the river cruise which we hosted on the Volga in Stalin’s river cruiser with all the ocean and river companies in the USSR in attendance.”

“Get to the nub of the issue and accept that nothing in the law is 100% certain.”

Martin advises those contemplating a career in law to “be curious; do the research; know the client and their requirements and expectations; get to the nub of the issue; and accept that nothing in the law is 100% certain.” Alastair also encourages careful listening. “There is some truth in the claim that the client is always right.” Then “make sure the law fits and if it does not, be very patient. Nurture your clients and always be alert to the possibility of winning a new one.”

Since retiring from the firm, both former partners have been involved with a number of charities and foundations, together with their wives, as well as spending time with family and numerous grandchildren. Martin was the President of the UK Chamber of Shipping, the first professional (non-shipping person) to be so appointed. Alastair’s appointments have included Prime Warden of a City Livery Company and board member of a number of companies. He is in the process of retiring for the second time – garden, golf and other country pursuits beckon.

Martin’s first job was teaching Classics at a boys’ prep school. Alastair’s was, curiously, working on the digging of the Victoria Line! Had they not chosen the law as a career, Martin would have liked to be a doctor and Alastair a property developer. “There was easy money to be made in the 1970s but I would probably have gone bust in one of the recessions!”

They are pleased that the firm has decided to create an alumni programme. Both see it as a mutually beneficial opportunity for both past and present colleagues to work together as well as keeping in touch with old friends and a firm of which they are clearly still very proud.

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