The big interview: deal-maker Philip Rodney

Philip Rodney has seen Burness Paull benefit from growth in international work, with major deals in the property and oil sectors. Photograph: Greg Macvean
Philip Rodney has seen Burness Paull benefit from growth in international work, with major deals in the property and oil sectors. Photograph: Greg Macvean
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Since leading what many in the legal sector say was a step-change merger for his firm in 2012, Philip Rodney has driven three consecutive years of double-digit growth at regional heavyweight Burness Paull.

A self-confessed petrol-head, the music-loving chairman of Scotland’s top deal-making firm has worked his way through a number of sporty motors over the years. For the last several months he’s been getting to his office in Glasgow in his “gangsta style” Range Rover Sport, complete with 22” alloy wheels and black-out windows.

Although shielded from prying eyes while on the road, Rodney’s efforts at building a top-tier legal firm have been anything but inconspicuous. According to latest rankings, Burness Paull advised on 183 corporate transactions in 2015 which were worth more than £17 billion, putting it comfortably ahead of its nearest Scottish-based rivals.

The firm says deal values have surged further in the current year despite the downturn in the oil and gas sector, one of its four main markets. The offshore division has remained busy with contract renegotiations, share restructuring and similar activity to help clients cope with prevailing market conditions.

Meanwhile, litigation and corporate activity has also been strong. For example, the dispute resolution division led by Neil Smith has raised its turnover by 41 per cent during the past three years.

The firm’s growth since the union of Burness, with its offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Aberdonian stalwart Paull & Williamsons has been driven by lateral hires and organic expansion. Turnover topped £50 million for the first time during the year to July 2015, accompanied by a 12 per cent hike in profits to £23.2m.

Though most of the current financial year has already passed, Rodney is reluctant to commit on what the latest figures may show. However, it seems that business is continuing to progress in line with recent form.

“You don’t really know till the books close on the last day, but we will see further growth this year,” he says. “It has been double-digit growth for the last three years, and we might slow slightly from that, but there will be growth.”

The firm’s ethos centres on complex, high-value work and has led to a stronghold in four main areas. In addition to oil and gas, these include the financial sector, property and infrastructure and corporate transactions.

The aim now is to add a fifth string to its bow following last week’s appointment of Callum Sinclair, who was recently named one of the 100 people from Scotland’s digital technology industry who are “changing the world”. As a partner based out of Glasgow, he will lead Burness Paull’s technology group – a newly-created role – while also taking over as head of commercial.

Sinclair, who joins from DLA Piper, is tasked with nothing less than building a top-ranking technology team within three years, moving up to market leader within five. The firm’s 58th partner will achieve this by bolstering the number of technology staff across all three of Burness Paull’s offices.

It’s an ambitious target, but Rodney believes the country’s tech sector is set to drive substantial economic growth: “I would like us to be nothing less than the go-to firm for technology in Scotland.”

The legal sector in which he hopes to achieve this remains in a state of flux, with fee levels down by as much as 20 per cent since the banking crisis and clients less prone than ever to long-term loyalty. Many venerable Scottish names have fallen to financial failure or cross-border mergers in recent years, and those that remain have been forced to adopt sharp management practices, yet most in the sector believe that further consolidation is on the cards.

Rodney says new entrants will continue making their way into the Scottish market as teams drift away from certain law firms, making them vulnerable to takeover. Some mergers will be strategically smart while others will see the weak huddling for warmth.

With the deal that created Burness Paull now bedded down, Rodney says the firm might begin looking to bring in rival legal teams or do “something larger”, but this would not include surrendering the autonomy of the partnership where he has worked for nearly the whole of his career.

A keen photographer who fancied a job as a journalist while growing up, Rodney was persuaded by his parents to study law at Strathclyde University. He did his training with McGrigor Donald, where he worked for the first two years of his career.

“To be honest, for the first couple of years I was not sure I had made the right decision, but then I found an area that I enjoyed in commercial litigation,” he recalls.

This revelation coincided with a move to boutique Glasgow law firm Alexander Stone & Co, where he worked for “brilliant” senior partner Alfie Phillips. Looking back, Rodney likens the experience to being a sorcerer’s apprentice, with his mentor taking a genuine interest in the development of his protégé.

Alexander Stone became part of Burness in 1998, by which time Rodney was a partner in commercial litigation. He took over as head of dispute resolution at the end of 1999, and led its overhaul from a service line working for other parts of the firm into an externally-focused business. He moved up to chairman of Burness in 2005, and retained that role after the 2012 merger to create Burness Paull, which at that time had less than 30 partners. Though Burness was twice the size of Paull & Williamsons, the deal was a regarded as a merger of equals combining Paull’s commercial expertise with it ally’s leading position in Aberdeen.

Along with all of its rivals, Burness Paull has had to sharpen its competitive pitching skills as clients increasingly put work out to tender, with many procurement programmes focused intently on value for money. Large corporations and public sector organisations have also been slimming down their legal panels, further intensifying the fight for market share.

Burness Paull was among those who last month secured re-appointment with Yum! Brands, the company behind KFC and Pizza Hut. But others such as Clyde & Co missed out as Yum! trimmed down numbers amid a re-organisation of its legal team.

“Panel work is increasingly competitive,” Rodney says. “The buying of legal services is becoming much more sophisticated, and everyone in the market is having to adapt to that.”

Though focused squarely on the “heartbeat of corporate Scotland”, Burness Paull has also benefited from significant growth in international work, with big deals in the food and drink, property and oil sectors often including a foreign dimension. The same is true in IT, which is another driver behind the substantial investment in Sinclair’s technology team.

The firm has worked on deals covering more than 60 jurisdictions during the past year, aided by its network of strategic alliances with other independent legal partnerships around the world. International work now accounts for nearly 40 per cent of fees, almost double that at the time of the merger three years ago.