Keith Oliver – senior partner at Peters & Peters – on why the Maxwell case was so central to his career, international working, the future of the firm & more...
Keith, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for The Brief. Firstly, can you give us a quick rundown of your career to date?
I like to think that when I became a lawyer I joined a noble profession, despite the infamous phrase uttered by Dick The Butcher in Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.” I was initially inspired to become a lawyer after watching the highly romanticised legal based TV programmes of the 1960s.
In all seriousness, when I joined the legal sector 30 years ago it was a very different world. Over the past three decades it has evolved into a business and that’s been a fascinating transition. When I arrived at Peters & Peters as an articled clerk aged 23 there were just five partners and two associates. I quickly moved up the ladder and was a salaried partner at 25 and I then became senior partner in 2005. Over the years my head has - quite naturally - been turned but I’ve never seriously considered leaving as I feel a strong sense of loyalty to the practice. I’m also constantly inspired by its people, culture and the work we do. That’s what keeps me here and why I’m still so enthusiastic.
How easy is it to juggle your duties as the firm’s senior partner alongside your client work?
I think it’s fair to say that I’m not the world’s best administrator so thankfully only about 10% of my time is spent on firm related admin duties. Thankfully we have an outstanding management team which includes Helen McDowell (managing partner) and Mike Gilbert (finance director). This allows me to spend the bulk of my time focussing on client work and business development. These are where my strengths lie as I enjoy engaging with people and leading a 40 strong team of outstandingly talented commercial litigation and specialist fraud lawyers.
You’re recognised as one of the world’s best investigative lawyers and your work involves multi jurisdictional actions in the USA, continental Europe and worldwide. Sounds exciting but challenging... what do you most enjoy?
There are many aspects that I enjoy – especially when I’m working on a challenging case that includes complex issues across multiple jurisdictions which could encompass Asia, the Gulf States, Europe, India, South America or China. I also thrive on working with mega-intelligent lawyers from around the world in order to help our clients: that never fails to inspire me.
Sometimes professional opponents in these kinds of cases can lose sight of the values that underpin our profession. However, in my view it’s essential to always respect the ‘other side’ because if you are able to get on well then in the long run it will aid relationships and will be for the client’s greater benefit.
What’s the most high profile/ standout case that you’ve personally worked on?
I’ve worked on several including on the infamous Guinness trial. However, the real standout was the Maxwell proceedings in the 1990s when I acted for Kevin Maxwell. It was – and has remained – one of the most intellectually challenging (but satisfying) cases that I have ever been involved in. It was highly complex that brought in many disciplines, including criminal defence as well as commercial, litigation, banking and property related issues to name but a few. This meant that I had to quickly develop my skills set. In turn, my network of contacts grew as I was exposed to the great and good of the Chancery Bar and London’s financial community. That case was pivotal for me as it taught me so much including how to deal with the media. I quickly became aware that you have to engage with the press and you ignore them at your peril.
Which parts of the business are you looking to invest in over the coming years?
In short, to continue with what we do now. We have operated and been fiercely independent since 1938 which is something we are extremely proud of. At present, around 60% of our clients are based overseas. They come to us when they face a massive commercial crisis or for something out of the ordinary. A situation like that can be daunting - and knowing where to turn confusing - so much of our work comes via referrals from other lawyers. As a result, we need to keep focussing on growing our expertise and building relationships with practioners around the world so we are capable of operating effectively on the international stage.
The firm does a lot of international work so have you ever – or would you ever – consider opening another office in Europe or further afield?
Never say never but we don’t need to at the moment as our brand and reputation are strong. Peters & Peters’ growth has shown that we can be successful if we develop lasting and meaningful relationships with other firms rather than investing in bricks and mortar. Also, on a commercial level, it can take between three and five years to get a proper foothold in a new market and then you have to start competing with local firms which might not be in our best long-term interest. Our clear approach is to be the referral of choice for those who do not have our skill set.
Where do you think the firm will be in 10 years time?
I’d like to still be a central part of it and I think the focus will be on growing our fee earning team and income but in the right and most sustainable ways possible. We’ll do this by making our brand ever more recognisable, by building on our offering and by working hard to ensure that international markets know what we do and how we can aid them.
We’ll also be investing in our people. For example, we’ve recently launched a new initiative for our associates; they now have an annual budget which can be spent on developing their own professional relationships. We want to promote autonomy and self motivation as they are central to the firm’s success.
In a few words, why do clients choose Peters & Peters?
People. Enthusiasm. Ability. Understanding. Integrity. Reputation.
In your opinion, what makes a good lawyer?
Passion. You have to be passionate about the law, no question.
Finally, have you still got career goals that you personally want to achieve?
I would like for the firm - and its people - to maintain their stellar reputations when I retire. That would be the ideal legacy. I’m not going anywhere yet though!