In Search of Excellence

Twenty-five years ago Emilio Cuatrecasas
developed a business plan which he is still
following today. He tells Iberian Lawyer how this
transformed a small family practice into one of
the largest Iberian law firms.

For a lawyer who has left his
hallmark on the development of the
Iberian legal profession, Emilio
Cuatrecasas is at first surprisingly
cautious talking about his personal
motivation and achievements. While
enthusiastic about the growth and
financial performance of the law
firm which bears his name, he was
less comfortable discussing his
personal aims and ambitions.

Con 25 años de edad y tras
sólo dos años de ejercicio en
el despacho familiar, Emilio
Cuatrecasas tuvo la visión,
o algunos lo llamarí­an
arrogancia, de replantear la
forma de gestionar la firma.
Implantó ideas radicales
para esa íˆpoca, relativas al
hecho de romper el cí­rculo
de socios y abrirlo, de
enfocar la práctica jurí­dica
hacia el derecho empresarial
(business law) y de adoptar
como principio un modelo
anglosajón. Quizás de
forma inaudita, los socios
aceptaron sus consejos y,
desde entonces, ha liderado
una transformación que ha
conducido a la creación de
una de las mayores firmas
jurí­dicas de la Pení­nsula
Ibérica.

But Emilio Cuatrecasas is not a
typical lawyer. At the age of 25, after
only two years in the family practice,
he had the foresight, some would
say arrogance, to question how the
firm should be run. Perhaps
surprisingly, the partners, who
included his father, accepted his
criticisms and he has spent a quarter
of a century leading a transformation
which has created one of the largest
Iberian law firms.

A Bias for Action

Emilio Cuatrecasas joined his
father's six lawyer firm in 1977. 'I
didn't have a choice. Those were
times when parents directed their
children's careers'. The firm had a
good reputation and client base but
the partners were perhaps too
complacent in a rather sleepy Spain.
After only two years, he was
frustrated. 'I felt uncomfortable. I
am someone that needs space to
expand and the firm was not
showing signs to growing bigger.'

In a leap of faith, the partners agreed
for him to study the firm accounts
and draft some kind of strategic
plan. 'The partners questioned my
interest. I was only 25 at the time,
but still they gave me the books and
files. I spent a month thinking about
opportunities, client relationships
and client satisfaction levels, and
when I finished I presented the
conclusions.'

His proposals were radical: openingup
the partnership, specialising in business law, and adopting the
Anglo-Saxon model. He also realised
the major threat posed by the global
accountancy practices, believing
Cuatrecasas had to expand their tax
practice to maintain top-level work. 'The partners felt uneasy about my
suggestions but it was a crucial
moment for the firm.' He got the go
ahead, but with two tough
conditions, 'one, I would manage the firm except the old partners and
two, I would lose my position if
there were any financial losses.'

Emilio took his inspiration from the
business and not legal world, the
best seller of management guru Tom
Peters, In Search of Excellence. 'I
even cut out the summary from the
book and put it on my office wall.'

The ideas Emilio developed from
Tom Peters continue to define the
firm. 'I haven't got answers for
everything' he says, 'the first
principle for the firm is let the client
judge us.' He also believes strongly
in decentralisation and trusting
individuals. 'Trust in people not
me.' he says.

These beliefs have taken him to
extraordinary lengths. In 1991 in a
highly unusual move, Emilio and his
father transferred their veto rights
over the partnership to the rest of the
partners, becoming an elected
managing partner with secret voting
every 4 years. He remembers this as
one of the defining moments of his
career: 'It was an unforgettable and
very emotional experience.'

But since the beginning his strong
convictions have brought challenges. 'We face the need to motivate people every day. It was hard to
maintain all of the support staff
when going through change; they
were not all comfortable with the
new dynamic approach.' But he was
particularly satisfied that all of the
original partners stayed with the
firm, working through the last
months of their lives. 'That makes
me very proud, as they found in the
firm what they needed to stay until
the end.'

One of the hardest early decisions
was to move to new and expensive
offices. 'The main reason was to give
a new and modern image, which I
believe is linked to better
performance and providing quality
services. This decision was against
the usual belief in keeping costs low.
We were the first law firm to move
to big premises. After us, all
competitors did the same.'

An independent outlook

Despite the arrival in Spain of the
Anglo Saxon firms, Cuatrecasas has
remained staunchly independent. 'When the Anglo-Saxon firms
arrived 10 years ago, they presented
a great challenge to the Spanish
market, in particular because they
hired 'our' lawyers. It is hard to
compete against your own people
and friends.'

But he is very positive about the
influence they have had. 'The
foreign firms have stimulated us all,
it has made us improve, to get better
and now we feel stronger. With the
exception of the UK, I would say
that Spain sits at the top of the legal
market in continental Europe.'

Recently he took particular
satisfaction when a former partner
and his 5-lawyer team returned to Cuatrecasas from a UK law firm. 'Luckily the Cuatrecasas people
came back.' He understands why
Spanish lawyers join Anglo-Saxon
firms. 'In general they work on a
temporary basis, as a learning stage.
It is good experience and good for the reputation.' But he is confident
that they will feel more comfortable
with Spanish firms that can offer a
'work culture that they know best,
an environment that they are
comfortable in. Partners get paid
here like in any other foreign firm'
he says.

The challenges ahead

On a personal level, Emilio enjoys
the challenges of the job as much as
he did when he started out. 'This is
a job that allows you to work with
very clever and brilliant people. You
cannot be a strong boss, instead you
have to use persuasion to convince
people. I might have an idea but I
need to take it to the rest of the firm
to persuade them, it is like an
internal sales process. This enables
us to refine the idea until the final
product is agreed. It is a wonderful
challenge.'

His main objective going forward is
to be 'the law firm of choice in the
Iberian region for Spanish and international clients.' Today,
Cuatrecasas represent almost 40% of
the mid-size and major Spanish
businesses. 'The next step, is to
develop our international practice
and expand in key countries such as
France, US, Brazil, China, Mexico
and UK.'

He seems years away from retiring,
but can imagine the firm functioning
well without him. 'Perfectly. I am
replaceable. From time to time, I
spend time away from the firm and
everything worked even better
without me. The institution works
like clockwork.'

He still believes strongly in the 'pursuit of excellence' and the need
to trust individuals and devolve
authority. 'Arguments and
disagreements are an illness' he
says, 'I would like to leave the
concept of unity. Something more
valuable that the sum of each
individual.' This may explain his
initial unease about discussing his
personal motivation and
achievements. Emilio Cuatrecasas
has a management philosophy and
business approach that is different to
many law firms, and one which
suggests that it is the work of every
individual which defines the success
of the firm.

In Search of Excellence

Garcia-Sicilia

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Iberian Lawyer, is a monthly digital magazine, published by LC Publishing, available in Spanish and English. It represents the main source of information in the legal business sector in Spain and Portugal. The digital magazine – and its portal – address to the protagonists of law firms and in-house lawyers. The magazine is available for free on the website and on Google Play and App Store.

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