Chris Nott is not your stereotypical lawyer, as Robert Llewellyn Jones discovered
Clad in a sober, lightweight business suit and open-neck shirt Chris Nott does not look like the typical lawyer.
And that is no accident, as the urbane senior partner at Capital Law, doesn’t want his staff to act like stuffy, pinstripe-suited stereotypes.
Mr Nott set up Capital Law five years ago, having previously been a partner in the firm Palser Grossman, whose business law division it acquired.
Sitting in his office in the Capital Building on Tyndall Street, with its panoramic views over the city, he reflects on how different the firm of today is from how things were when he began in practice 30 years ago.
“Our offices do not look like a law firm and our lawyers don’t act like lawyers, they are just people who care about sorting out their client’s problems in the quickest way they can,” he said.
“We are not stand-offish. We work closely with our clients seeing ourselves in the role of advisers whose ambition is to be the leading business-law practice based in Wales.”
That can-do attitude has been shaped in part by the nature of the firm’s clients.
“A large proportion of Capital Law’s work is with Welsh entrepreneurs who I’ve worked with for 25-years,” he said. “In some ways it’s like having participated in a 25-year MBA course where you get to see both the best and worst of practice. The effect working with people like that has had on me has been to abolish the fear of risk. So I set up a business and enjoy watching it grow.”
Before forming Capital Law Mr Nott set up and grew a number of other businesses outside the legal sector. He said: “When we formed this firm we agreed we would set up an investment vehicle to run parallel with it. This would identify businesses started by our clients or inspired by them, which have growth potential.
“This is now five years old and has been successful with ventures in the food and beverage sector and the fishing industry.”
The Capital Law ethic is, he said, best expressed as “to thine own self be true”.
“There are, of course, rules governing work and personal behaviour. We have a strong collegiate culture but within that we encourage people to be entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurship is at the core of everything we do.”
Illustrating this he said: “Four years ago we started a small HR consulting business. Rather than giving clients advice on employment law our consultants will go in and help deliver the project for them.
“We realised we’d hit on a good idea so rather than grow that business organically we went out and bought an existing, multi-faceted consultancy business. As a consequence of this over the last three years we’ve worked on acquiring a small number of specialist consulting businesses, bolted these together and relaunched them as Consult Capital.”
In March his experience and ability saw him appointed chair of the financial and professional services panel, which reports directly to Edwina Hart Minister for Business, Economy, Science and Technology.
“Our brief is to advise her on how to grow the financial professional services part of the Welsh economy,” said Mr Nott.
“We kept our head down for the first few months while we got to know the Minister and her priorities and her departmental team, who already had a well developed plan. We struck up a constructive working relationship and the approach we have encouraged is to keep the plan simple, focus your resources and build on what we got.”
Securing Mr Nott’s services and entrepreneurial flair was considered something of a coup and he is prepared to admit that the panel has identified a strong financial and professional services sector in Wales.
The problem, he explained, was no-one knows about the sector – the perception being Wales didn’t have one.
He said: “We do have one and the way to grow it is to back those local companies who have realistic growth ambitions that can move forward more quickly with government help.”
A major task for the panel is to attract inward investment to Wales and Mr Nott has no doubt where this will come from.
“We think the biggest single source of that inward investment will come from London,” he said. “London is one of the largest financial services hubs in the world and Cardiff is the capital city nearest to it. It was for that reason we advised the Minister to create the central business district in Cardiff, which sits over the railway station. When businesses arrive in Cardiff they come straight into the enterprise zone.”
He added: “She accepted our advice and we are advising that this inward investment project be developed by a two-strand approach – the first is Cardiff council and the financial services panel work as a team. The second is that in London we identify which organisations are most prepared to bring their businesses to Wales.”
He argues that the starting point in reaching London-based businesses is through the Welsh diaspora, which includes major decision makers and opinion formers.
So what is it Mr Nott and his panel are looking for?
He allows himself a moment of reflection before saying: “I like to dream that JP Morgan will move their global headquarters to Cardiff but it’s not likely.”
Then reality returns and he adds: “There is a chance that it will move part of its back office here. Deutsche Bank moved its European legal support function to Birmingham a year ago and Citi Bank has moved many of its back office operations to Belfast, which employs some 1,500 people.”
All this he believes can be achieved by identifying the right businesses and by a focussed offering.
The advice given to the Minister has been direct and succinct.
“Not only should the Welsh Government have an office in London but it should be one we are all proud of,” he said. “One which government, the private sector panels and anyone in Wales acting on behalf of the country can use. A shop window for the Welsh economy – Scotland has one, Ireland has one and so should we.”
On the future of his own profession he is equally forthright, believing the legal profession has failed to evolve.
Law, he argues, is a service industry, and the notion that lawyers are the most important people in a transaction is not the case.
“I think the legal profession, as a whole, has a huge wake-up call coming over the next five years,” he said. “This will be led by a small number of firms who have broken the mould and by big institutions, who see the opportunities to move into the ground lawyers are too nervous to enter.”
“The days of lawyers doing residential conveyancing disappeared years ago,” he adds. “Do you need solicitors to convey a residential property unless it’s in the multi-million-pound bracket?”
While commercial property law is a different entity, society, he believes, doesn’t need the number of small, average, law firms we see around.
What he thinks it does need is a proper service for the customer at a proper price.
He sees consolidation as starting to occur, but believes there is an immense commercial opportunity for forward-thinking firms.
His final piece of advice is to those starting on a legal career.
“There are too many lawyers and too many law graduates,” he said.
“My advice to those thinking of entering the profession is only think of a career in law if you have an aptitude for it and are prepared to work hard.
“Having done that figure out whether you want to work in commercial or civil law and when that’s decided find a mentor who you find truly inspirational.”
Western Mail 26 October 2011il