Interview: Alastair Dickson of Dickson Minto

Alastair Dickson now spends most of his time in the firm's London office. Picture: Lesley Martin
Alastair Dickson now spends most of his time in the firm's London office. Picture: Lesley Martin
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LAW firm Dickson Minto is a little like Fight Club – the first rule of Dickson Minto is: you don’t talk about Dickson Minto.

Yet here is one of the firm’s two titular heads, Alastair Dickson, sitting on a rare sunny day in the firm’s Edinburgh office, pouring a cup of tea and talking.

There are reasons for his reticence. Having faced some rather unpleasant and invasive publicity over his domestic circumstances 15 years ago, it is no wonder he is reserved.

But the other reason he keeps the firm’s counsel is strictly commercial. Dickson Minto – unlike other firms which moved to become limited liability partnerships – has battled fiercely to protect its partners’ role as advisers and confidantes to the most serious of clients in the stickiest of circumstances.

“We don’t enter for awards, we don’t supply figures on our performance, we never advertise deals we have done,” says Dickson. “If, as regularly happens, someone phones up to ask if we have been involved in a certain deal, we don’t provide any input.

“Our culture is about confidentiality. I have advised non-execs on public companies and that fact will never see the light of day. People appreciate that discretion, so a FTSE-100 non-exec might say to another, ‘Go speak to these guys. They will give you straight advice.’”

There is no easy way to tell how well the business has been performing because unlike all but two top 100 firms in the UK – Slaughter and May is the other – its accounts are not made public because it has remained a partnership. But, as he might suggest to clients or in the club, Dickson gives a few hints about the robustness of the health of the business. For example, partner numbers are up over the past five years.

“We are content to grow at a very slow rate,” he says. He also confirms that profit per partner has grown, albeit he admits this has been “hard to do”.

The Legal 500 – the industry “bible” – describes the firm’s corporate finance practice as “revered”. Not that Dickson speaks to them either.

“The London practice is very much M&A and private equity-based,” says Dickson. “Our financial services practice encompasses both offices. Regulatory work has become more important in the past two years. We have also managed to grow things like the competition and anti-trust practice down south.”

Yet there are some clients – among them those who like to brag a little about having Dickson Minto on their side – whose identities emerge into the public sphere. And inevitably, if there is something going on in corporate Scotland, Dickson Minto does not seem far away. The firm is involved in the challenging AG Barr and Britvic merger, last year’s £34.5 million sale of Sir David Murray’s Premier Hytemp and guards the interests of Sir Fraser Morrison’s family. Many of his clients, Dickson says, are also his friends.

Although Dickson does not spend much time in Edinburgh these days – he is based in London – he is concerned about the state of his fellow Scottish law firms. Legal firms north of the Border have been nervy since the collapse of Semple Fraser, while others have sought mergers to strengthen their business. He expects there are more mergers to come.

“The Scottish law firms have been operating in a growing market for a number of years because of the work from the banks. Some were just not quick enough to move when the downturn came … Some firms don’t remain flexible or nimble enough to react.

“We are not perfect. But it surprises us how some of the Scottish firms are geared when they perhaps shouldn’t be. We have never borrowed in the past 20 years, this gives us flexibility. And we are very prudent in our accounting, this keeps cash in the business.”

He recalls with relief how, when moving into a new office in London, the firm was gazumped by someone else who was happier to pay a much-higher price. In retrospect, he counts the firm lucky to have avoided the deal. Instead it moved to a modern, open-plan office in Broadgate Tower.

“Better having your money in the bank than on the walls of your office,” he says. I put it to him this is a very Scottish attitude. He counters: “It is just sensible – in some ways it is very un-Scottish. Some of the growth in the Scottish firms has been huge in the past few years. For us, profitability and quality has always been more important than size. There is a huge temptation to take on more people to get more turnover. That has never applied.”

In fact, he admits perhaps some instances where the firm has erred on the side of parsimony. “We’ve had a number of lawyers who didn’t make it as partners in London who are now partners in ‘magic circle’ firms,” he adds. “Maybe we made mistakes not taking on the people we should. But it is better to do that than the other way around.”

The legal landscape was different when Dickson and Bruce Minto – who was once his trainee but who had been offered a partnership – left Dundas & Wilson in 1985 to start their own firm.

“It was very rare to do that, at that stage,” he recalls. “A lot of people told us we’d fail; one person said we would come crawling back because we wouldn’t have any clients.”

The duo opened a London office in the same year. Initially, business down south was slow, and Dickson says they were just about to shut up shop when a client came knocking at the door with a deal, and then another. He moved to London for a month to manage the growing business and that is where he and his wife – “cashmere queen” Belinda Dickson – now mainly reside. But he and his partner Minto remain close. He says: “Bruce and I speak most days and, in 23 years, we have never had a serious disagreement about anything.”

The two are quite different characters. Dickson is not taciturn – he speaks quickly and across a range of subjects – but Minto is more gregarious. Perhaps the two are complimentary, yin and yang. But Dickson is more circumspect: “We share views on a lot of different things. The chances of our disagreeing on something are very small.”

Instead, their partnership is perhaps the basis of a wider culture in the firm: anti-hierarchical and hard working.

“The offices would not work if we had prima donnas. People have to work together. Nobody owns a client. We don’t care whose name is on the file. You have got to work as a team.”

But corporate law firms have faced hungry days of late – he says the firm’s clients are approached most weeks by his rivals trying to win their business. If there is a sense Dickson Minto has been cutting its margins, he only hints at it.

“We have to fight to retain our clients. We give services at the right price. People often ask for fee estimates. To clients we like and trust we say, ‘You set the level of fee. What you think it is worth, we won’t argue with you.’ If you provide a really good service, people don’t mind paying. If you provide a less than first-class service, whatever you charge will be too much.

“If you give people the service they want, you are available 24/7, don’t charge them for bits and pieces fiddling around for something that never happens; if you … get immediate, practical, commercial advice, people value that.”

He isn’t often in the firm’s head office on Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square but, when he comes north, he doesn’t seem to be pleased with the city – particularly the never-ending tram work. “All I know is that it is the most-expensive transport system per mile in the world,” he says. “They don’t run where they should. Everyone is going to try them once, but what they will do after I have no idea. It is a beautiful city and we have really mucked it up.”

Nor does he like talking politics. “We are a totally non-political firm, we won’t express political views at all,” he says. But when pressed, he says: “I think a European free trade area is essential.

“I have a place in Switzerland where I go skiing – it seems the best way to be in the European Union without being in the EU.”