At the beginning of 2006 Rodrigo Uría stood down as managing partner of Uría Menéndez, the firm he had led for almost 30 years. In their first joint interview since taking over as co-managing partners, Luís de Carlos and José María Segovia talk to Iberian Lawyer about the firm’s distinctive approach to practice, its international direction, and the challenges of steering one of Spain’s best known law firms.
A principios de año y tras 30 años al mando de la firma, Rodrigo Uría comunicó publicamente su deseo de abandonar el puesto de socio director de Uría Menéndez. Luis de Carlos y José María Segovia, en su primera entrevista conjunta desde que aceptaron sus nuevos cargos como co-socios directores, hablan sobre la característica forma de gestionar la firma, la dirección internacional de Uría y lo que conlleva el «pilotar» uno de los despachos más conocido de la Península Ibérica. Sin embargo, de Carlos y Segovia parecen tranquilos ante su nuevo reto, y afirman que Rodrigo Uría permanecerá activo para con ciertos aspectos de la gestión de la empresa.
At a recent IBA conference, one of Germany´s leading lawyers told managing partners that in order to prosper law firms have to decide between two management strategies: being small and specialised like a speedboat, or large and allencompassing like a cruise liner. Firms size and shape, he said, would impact on both the type of work they do and how they are managed.
In response, a senior Uría Menéndez partner told the audience ‘at Uría we see no reason why we can’t be a large speed boat’. Such humour reveals what some regard as the unique working style and approach of a firm which internationally is often labelled as Spain’s ‘most prestigious law firm.
The right speed
The interior of Uría’s new landmark Madrid office is a symbol of its expansion and success. The understated though elegant decor could easily be that of a luxury speedboat.
Luís de Carlos and José María Segovia embrace what they see as the distinctive culture of Uría. Like most of the partners, they have spent their entire careers with the firm having joined straight from university, in their case, almost 25 years ago. Throughout their time, they say, the overriding philosophy has been one of quality, ‘We always wanted to have a good law firm with the best professionals,’ says Luís de Carlos.
This simple attitude is underpinned by a flexibility, which they believe, has enabled it to adapt to changing environments. ‘Innovation is key’ explains Luís de Carlos. ‘Throughout we have always been at the cutting edge – we have borrowed, adapted and developed. Our international practices, know-how, expertise, prestigious client list and roster of lawyers have been built up over the years.’
Lawyers at competitor firms acknowledge the strong cultural identity and intuitive style of Uría, and unlike other Spanish majors, it has yet to lose a partner to one of the UK or US law firms.
José María Segovia admits, however, that such success has not always been the result of meticulous planning. ‘We have never purposely decided what we will be doing in five or ten years time. That doesn’t mean that we do not have business plans, but that we have worked on matters without aiming to grow at any particular speed. We have done what we thought we should be doing at the time.’
Tradition with innovation
Despite what had been considered a collegial and traditional approach to management, Rodrigo Uría´s legacy is a modern partnership that is not afraid of change. In his last months of leadership the firm simplified its name, adopted a new logo, new corporate colours and moved to a new headquarters. His successors see his legacy of marrying tradition and innovation as a feature of the firm’s history.
Professor Rodrigo Uría Gonzalez, a leading academic whose team consisted predominantly of law professors, established Uría Menéndez in the 1940s, but it was the arrival of his US-trained son, Rodrigo Uría, which helped develop the firm’s more modern and international approach, and the intake of younger lawyers.
‘We were able to attract international companies and banks, and became one of the doors through which they entered the Spanish market,’ says José María Segovia. ‘We also benefited by bringing in foreign techniques and adapting them to the Spanish system. We learned alongside our clients, such as merchant banks, to develop new products.’
It is an approach that continues to win the firm international recognition. Last year Uría Menéndez received both the Chambers ‘Best Iberian Law Firm of the year’ and the International Financial Law Review (IFLR) ‘Spanish law firm of the year’ awards.
Luís de Carlos and José María Segovia are typically understated about the success, ‘We were basically in the right place at the right time, developing the right practices. We were able to benefit from the expansion of the Spanish market.’
In its early years Uría Menéndez competed with a number of larger domestic firms, many of which have since merged or collapsed. But unlike, for example, Garrigues – which Luís de Carlos and José María Segovia regard as their firm’s major competitor throughout its history – it has avoided tie-ups, and decided against joining an international network.
‘Garrigues was always very similar to us, until 1996 when it took the key decision to merge with Andersen Legal’ explains Luís de Carlos. While nobody could have foreseen the collapse of Andersen, José María Segovia feels that this was a blessing for Garrigues. ‘They managed to survive and it helped them to recover their name and independence.’
A year after the Garrigues merger, Uría Menéndez however faced the same difficult strategic decision. They had joined the Alliance of European Lawyers in 1990, but in 1997 the UK member, Linklaters, initiated merger talks with each of the other firms. José María Segovia remembers the discussions that took place among the Uría partners. Contrary to what we might expect, it was the younger generation that spoke most strongly against merger.
Despite rejecting Linklaters, they recognised however the need to have a strong ally among London’s ‘magic circle.’ For them, Slaughter and May was the obvious answer.
‘We had always had a very close relationship with Slaughter and May, and we were happier with their concept than the Linklaters concept,’ says José María Segovia. ‘It gave us the support of a very prestigious UK practice plus we retained our independence.’
Through their subsequent relationship they have worked with Slaughter and May’s best friends in other jurisdictions. ‘It is a good club, with no formalities and no exclusivity,’ explains Luís de Carlos.
But at home Uría Menéndez has adopted a more integrated approach to cross-border practice. ‘We believe that the Iberian market is a single market, where the focus is wider than only Madrid. There are three elements: Lisbon, Barcelona and Madrid’ explains José María Segovia. ‘We truly believe that, so our presence in Lisbon is very important to the firm. Our clients want us to be there.’
Uría was among the first Spanish firms to open in Portugal, in the late 1990s, and has subsequently expanded its presence through a 2004 merger with Lisbon-based Vasconcelos F. Sá Carneiro Fontes. Iberian Lawyer’s recent Lisbon Special Report confirms that their competitors saw it as the right move at the right time.
The firm’s client base also now takes Uría to Latin America, where it has chosen for the most part to work with local firms. The only exception is a Sí¢o Paulo office, which serves as a hub for its Latin American associations.
Luís de Carlos and José María Segovia say that their firm is interested in China, and is currently considering how best to achieve a presence, and Eastern Europe, in particular Poland, which has attracted the interest of Spanish companies and investors. India is also of interest.
But is the policy of independence a feasible one for the future? What would it take to make the firm change its mind? Both Luís de Carlos and José María Segovia agree that a major change in the structure of the profession, such as the successful merger between a premier US firm and a ‘magic circle’ London firm, might cause a rethink.
‘Another factor which might necessitate a rethink is if Slaughter and May were to change their strategy, which we do not expect’ Luís de Carlos explains. Another reason they say would also be if the younger partners were pushing for it, although neither see this as likely.
The key message internationally however, says Luís de Carlos, is one of consolidation rather than growth. ‘We should not lose our perspective. We are basically an Iberian law firm trying to provide top quality services in our market. We are not going to compete with international firms to become global.’
He is confident that the firm is delivering what the market wants. ‘Probably we have been sufficiently aggressive, not scared about growth or facing challenges. Our prestige has continued to grow with our size.’
Business as usual?
Replacing Rodrigo Uría, after a 27-year reign as managing partner, is inevitably a daunting task. Nonetheless both Luís de Carlos and José María Segovia appear calm about their new challenge, and stress that Rodrigo Uría will stay involved in management issues.
Having worked side-by-side for the past 20 years they are also relaxed about how their new roles and decisionmaking will be divided. Throughout the interview they intuitively know who will respond to each question, which is unusual for a new management team. They also share similar views as to the intended legacy of their tenure. The message they say is ‘business as usual’.
Luís de Carlos believes this is in keeping with the firm’s values. ‘One of our principles is consistency and I would like to be remembered as consistently on track, doing good work for good clients. I don’t think we are expecting to make substantial changes. Ideally our three years will go unnoticed!’
José María Segovia agrees, ‘Really I don’t want to be remembered at all. What is important is that things continue to evolve as they have done. We know this firm and all the people that work here very well. The task is to continue to do things in the same way that they have been done for the past 20 years.’
Although such an understated approach seems to be at odds with the management style of a modern law firm, Uría Menéndez is surviving, and indeed flourishing, as a very large speedboat.
What the future holds for the firm under the guidance of its two new captains nobody can be sure, however the role of the entire crew is crucial, as Luís de Carlos concludes. ‘As a manager your role in this firm is merely that of a coordinator. At the end of the day it is the day-to-day work of each partner, each person, which makes the difference.’