The Big Interview: Kirk Murdoch, head of law firm Pinsent Masons

Kirk Murdoch stresses that companies must start methodically working to identify how Brexit will impact on their trade, and what actions need to be taken. Picture: Scott Louden
Kirk Murdoch stresses that companies must start methodically working to identify how Brexit will impact on their trade, and what actions need to be taken. Picture: Scott Louden
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One vote has been and another is coming, but unlike the shockwaves of last week’s EU referendum, the outcome of this Friday’s decision on whether to admit women to Royal Troon Golf Club looks far more assured.

The vote by the Ayrshire club’s 800 members comes less than two weeks before practice rounds get underway there for this year’s 145th Open, and following the backlash after Muirfield narrowly rejected the admission of female members last month, the decision at Royal Troon seems all but certain. Kirk Murdoch, who plays there with a “very rusty” handicap of eight, is among many dropping strong hints as to the prevailing wind.

“I am as happy as I can be that my fellow members will do the right thing for the club and the local community,” says Murdoch, the chairman of law firm Pinsent Masons in Scotland and Northern Ireland. “We need a club for the modern society in which we exist.”

Like many, though, he was stunned by last week’s vote which sent executives and their professional advisors scrambling to assess their business position and dust down contingency plans. In the midst of the current fall-out, Murdoch and his firm are urging clients not to panic.

“In the short-term it will be anything but pretty, and the immediate shift in stocks and currency markets are an indicator that we are in for a very difficult time, which means businesses have to swiftly engage with external funders and investors,” he says.

“Brexit will undoubtedly affect almost every aspect of operations of a company based in or doing business with the UK, from its commercial contracts to IP, data protection, funding, employees and how it’s affected by competition law.

“But any exit agreement with Brussels will take years to discuss and resolve, which gives some breathing-space for businesses to start methodically working to identify how Brexit will impact on their trade, and what type of actions need to be taken.”

An “unrepentant Ayrshireman”, Murdoch has headed up the Scottish arm of Pinsent Masons since it came into its current form in 2012 through the acquisition of McGrigors, where he was previously senior partner.

“I look back on that with a huge amount of pride,” he says. “Not on a personal level, but pride for the firm. I think without a doubt it was the right decision. We can now track our clients much more internationally than ever we were able to do before, and that is paying dividends.”

At the time of the deal, McGrigors was the largest Scots law firm by turnover with £70 million in annual revenues. The acquisition sealed Pinsent Masons’ position as a heavyweight on the Scottish scene, where it acted on deals worth more than £5 billion during the year to April 2015.

Latest financial results were to be released this week, but have been postponed in the wake of the referendum. Murdoch suggests that when the figures do come out, there will be further improvement on what was described as a “vintage year” for the firm in Scotland during the previous 12 months.

The biggest deal behind the figures due to be released was the £585m sale of French oil giant Total’s St Fergus gas terminal and two pipelines to North Sea Midstream Partners. Pinsent Masons also advised on the acquisition by Canada’s Clearwater Seafoods of Macduff Shellfish, a £98.4m deal announced in October.

That momentum carried on into the first quarter of the current year, during which the firm’s Scottish corporate team acted on deals worth more than £1.5bn. It all appears quite impressive, particularly under the leadership of a man who says he nearly never made the cut when he applied as a trainee with McGrigors – previously McGrigor Donald – back in 1976.

Born in the tiny village of Hollybush just five miles from Ayr, Murdoch grew up working around the local pub owned by his parents. Frequented in the main by coal miners and farmers, the inn proved a “rich mix” of political views and social interaction that Murdoch credits as his “first real education”.

Schooled at Ayr Academy, he was an avid rugger player and eventually captained Ayr Rugby Club, but never made the grade to achieve his childhood ambition of a cap for the national side. He continued his athletic pursuits while at Edinburgh University, where he studied law with something less than total commitment.

“The reality there is, I was only at university to get a degree to get a job – it was not what you would call an academic experience,” he recalls.

“I approached my job interview in a pretty cavalier manner. I hate to think back about what I looked like and what I was wearing. I was also late, and yet somehow managed to get a job – I wouldn’t have gotten a job in Pinsent Masons today, that is for sure.”

Despite the shaky start with the apprenticeship committee, Murdoch soon came under the wing of David Bankier, a newly-promoted partner in commercial property at McGrigors. Murdoch eventually gave up his aspirations to become the next Perry Mason and found his home in commercial property, and to this day has never spent a moment as a litigator in court.

But that wasn’t quite the end of his “prodigal child” status, as his annual salary of less than £1,000 during training required some topping up. For nearly three years he eked out his finances by moonlighting as a DJ at Saints & Sinners in Glasgow, which like the pub run by his parents proved a valuable education in human interaction.

His professional life eventually settled down, however, and Murdoch started moving up the ranks within the firm. After making partner in 1982, he went on to serve as managing partner of McGrigors from 1997 to 2002, and was senior partner from 2006 until the acquisition by Pinsent Masons.

Despite many years in management roles, Murdoch says he strives to maintain strong relationships with key clients, as they are the ones who decide whether management strategy is proving effective at the coalface. This he believes is pivotal in a corporate law market whose value has remained static since the recession, with clients less prone than ever to long-term loyalty.

This has led to a significant shake-out in the sector, with many firms either merging or going bust in recent years, and predictions of more consolidation to come.

Murdoch divides the top end of the Scottish market – in which Pinsent Masons competes with more than 480 staff and 70 partners across three offices – into those focused on the domestic scene versus those handling both local and cross-border deal-making.

Pinsent Masons is most definitely the latter, with offices spanning Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The focus for growth across this network is on five sectors – infrastructure, energy, financial services, real estate and advanced manufacturing and technology – which are Murdoch’s targets for further progress north of the Border.

Innovation is another key, which is why Pinsent Masons acquired a majority stake in Glasgow-based Cerico last year. Originally launched as a joint venture with IT consultancy Campbell Nash, the platform automates many of the compliance processes that businesses need to meet regulatory requirements from legislation such as the Bribery Act or health and safety mandates.

Murdoch says Pinsent Masons is already seeing “significant returns” on the investment in this subsidiary, which is another step towards ensuring that the firm carries out its work in a way that is “absolutely efficient from the client’s point of view”.

“Clients are still looking for more for less from their lawyers, and we have got to adapt to that,” he says. “There is always work for good lawyers who are in tune with their clients’ challenges and objectives, but if we are not relevant to our clients, we are in trouble.”