A law firm that has a heart

When Saleem Sheikh became Managing Partner of GSC Solicitors LLP in 1990, he saw an opportunity to shape a different sort of law firm: a “firm that has a heart”. In the latest in our series of GSC Stories, celebrating 50 years of the firm, Saleem explains why he felt a change of direction was necessary – and how he made it happen.

When I became Managing Partner of the firm, I felt I had more autonomy to make the business more diverse, to expand our portfolio of services and admit a new generation of like-minded partners.

We had, like many (if not most) law firms at the time, been a rather authoritarian organisation. I felt our staff turnover was too high and part of the reason for that was that we were not especially open to fresh ideas. We probably weren’t as welcoming or collaborative as we could have been.

I wanted to make it a friendlier firm, a family firm in the sense that everyone here felt invested in what we were doing and felt able to contribute. A place where everyone really did work as part of a team.

Of course, that can’t happen simply by saying it. You have to follow it through in your actions and in the structures and processes by which we operate.

At the small, personal level we engineered change by demonstrating greater respect for others, by being sensitive to their feelings, and by being honest and upfront with them. We celebrated birthdays. If someone had a significant anniversary with the firm, I’d remember it and acknowledge it. If they were having a tough time or had been ill, we’d send flowers or a basket of fruit. We took time to engage. At a business level we listened more often and more intently to what our people were telling us. We acted on suggestions.

Because I had been a junior member of my legal team in the early days, I had a good understanding of how to gauge the pace and manner of change. I felt I knew what the right moves were – and what the wrong thing would have been.

The change was almost instant. Immediately, you saw more smiles around the office, more people saying how touched they were with the gestures we made. Over a period of time – and not a long period of time – we saw staff turnover reduce. People said they felt much more a part of the GSC family. Loyalty is not something you can demand or expect automatically. It requires respect and openness for loyalty to flourish.

Long term partners. Trusted advisors

From our clients’ perspectives, I believe our shift in emphasis made us less of a transactional law firm. We weren’t simply the people to do a deal for clients who would then move on. We became much more focused on the long term, on building genuine partnerships with clients who saw (and see) us as an integral part of their lives and businesses.

I’ve often said that I believe our legacy at GSC Solicitors LLP is that we have created a firm with a beating heart – a law firm that feels. That is what has enabled our transition from ‘just’ lawyers to trusted advisors. I believe it is a major factor in our longevity.

Explore more GSC Stories

 

 

The One About the SFO, ATF & FBI

What do you do when the FBI comes knocking? GSC Solicitors’ Harvey Posener saw the funny side…

I’ve been responsible for compliance at GSC Solicitors LLP for many years. It was in this capacity, around twenty years ago, that I got a phone call from the wonderful Annie on reception.

“There’s a policeman here,” she said. “He wants to talk to somebody.”

“Oh really?” I replied. Now wasn’t the best time. “Could you tell him I’m busy right now but if he’d like to make an appointment I’d be happy to see him.”

A moment later and the phone was ringing again. Annie sounded a little more agitated this time. “I think you’d better come down,” she said. “He’s from the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). There’s an American officer with him from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).”

A dramatic pause.

“And there’s an FBI agent with them. I think you might want to come down.”

I thought I might not want that.

A little hesitantly I went downstairs and showed the gentlemen into a conference room. We talked for about an hour and it very quickly became clear that neither the firm nor the client had done anything remotely wrong. It did, however, seem that someone our client was in the process of putting a deal together with had attracted the attention of some heavyweight law enforcement agencies.

The agents asked I could assist their enquiries. “I’d love to,” I said, “but you know that, as a solicitor, I’m subject to a duty of confidentiality. You fully accept that our clients are nothing to do with the fraud so I’m not in a position to help you.”

The agents tried again. “What happens,” they asked, “if we stay here and get a notice served under Section 2 of PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act)?”

That notice would be sufficient to override the duty of confidentiality, so I said that would be fine. They asked for contact details. I gave them and went back to my room to wait for notice.

Around an hour later, Senior Partner Saleem Sheikh was buzzing me. Even the buzzer sounded urgent. “Can you come to my room?” he asked in a rather panicked voice.

Saleem was ashen and shaken. In has hand he clutched a ream of papers on which the SFO, ATF and FBI’s names were clearly visible. He waved them at me. “What on earth is going on?” he spluttered, clearly imagining the sensational headlines.

I’d given the FBI Saleem’s name and fax number.

It took me a while to give him the full explanation. I was too busy rolling on the floor laughing.

 

 

Beginnings and Endings

John Green is a founding partner of Green David Conway and Co, the firm that would become GSC Solicitors LLP. In this, the latest in our series of GSC Stories celebrating 50 years of GSC, he discusses his journey into the law, and the decision to leave his full time role with the firm some 40 years later.

The journey into law

I went to a local grammar school but didn’t get on with my headmaster. He refused to give me a recommendation for university because he said I was unsuitable so I left school in 1963 and went to Israel.

After around three months I was running low on funds. I phoned my father asking him to send me some money. He refused, telling me I could either stay where I was (broke) or come back and get a job. I chose the latter but needed to make a decision about which job.

If I went into the law, I thought, I could be independent, could have some status and I could probably earn some money. So I did five years as an articled clerk (I was at law school with David Conway, with whom I would later go into partnership) and qualified in 1970.

I spent a year at Nabarro Nathanson post-qualification but I didn’t want to work my way up in a big firm, spending 20 years in lockstep climbing the partnership ladder. I didn’t want to be told what to do. I wanted to do the work I wanted to do, and I wanted to be free to do things outside of the practice. At the time I didn’t want to form a partnership either!

But I did want to start my own firm. Although you can’t do that now as a newly qualified solicitor, you could then. So I started my own company: John Green and Co.

The decision to leave the law

It was 2000 and a chap who was working with us at the time came to me and asked if he could have a word.

He sat down, got straight to the point, and said he wanted to leave. I said I was sorry to hear that and asked why. It seemed there was barely room in his life for the law. His wife’s family had a farm in Provence and they spent time there. He had two young children. He coached the local cricket team and was into amateur dramatics. It occurred to me that, on a  relatively low salary, he was having a considerably better life than I was.

“Can I ask you a question?” he said.

I said he could.

“You come in at eight o’clock in the morning. You take work home with you every evening. You’re in on Saturdays and Sundays, aren’t you?”

I nodded, wondering where this was going.

“Can I ask you why?”

I awkwardly gave him some guff about people and families and mortgages and all the rest of it. He thought about this for a moment before asking if he could pose one last question. Regretting ever agreeing to the conversation I said yes while fearing I should probably have said no.

“I think you’re mad.”

The conversation stayed with me. Six months later I walked into Saleem’s office and said I’d be leaving in a year.

I’ve remained a consultant with GSC Solicitors LLP in the years since I retired, but now I run a private property company. I’m also involved in a restaurant group with my sons and we have restaurants in Japan, Europe and in the UK, so that occupies my time.

I had a wonderful time in the law. I enjoyed doing interesting work for clients I liked. But I don’t miss it!

A Matter of Merit: The Fight to Practise Law

Saleem Sheikh, senior partner of GSC Solicitors LLP, has been part of the fabric of the City law firm for over 40 years. But in early-1980s London it was tough for any young Asian to find a way into a legal profession that was anything but welcoming.

In this story in our series of GSC Stories celebrating 50 years of GSC Solicitors LLP, Saleem celebrates the people who saw his merit and potential.

Mercifully, I didn’t encounter much racism at all when I was at university and at the College of Law. I’d experienced it before, of course. I had arrived in the UK in 1967 from Kenya, the son of parents who had left India for Pakistan during the partition, and then left Pakistan for East Africa. I was the only Asian boy in my class at school and I was the butt of all the insults you might imagine. But by the time I had reached the latter stages of my academic career my world was a meritocracy. You stood or fell on your own abilities, and I was proving myself able.

So it was jarring to find that, when I came to apply for articles, things did not appear so simple. I knew that, despite my qualifications being as good as, if not better, than other applicants, the clients of the firms to which I was applying might not appreciate someone with the surname Sheikh as their legal representative.

Eventually I secured articles with a large City firm, although the offer felt lukewarm – as though it was more a result of their running out of reasons not to give me the job rather than actively wanting me.

As always at that time, my confidante and source of wisdom, advice and encouragement was Debra Trosser, my lecturer at the LSE. I explained my situation. She suggested I contact her brother-in-law who happened to be the co-founder of a boutique law firm in London.

I didn’t do that. I had an offer and, despite my misgivings, I felt I should probably stick with it.

The next time I ran into Debra, she challenged me. Why hadn’t I made the call? She insisted that we went for a drink, where we were joined by a rather imposing, grey-haired gentleman who also demanded to know why I hadn’t been in touch. This was John Green, co-founder of Green David Conway & Co, the firm which would in time become GSC Solicitors LLP. I mumbled something to John about my existing offer.

“In years to come,” he said, “there are going to be a lot of successful Asian clients who may need a commercial lawyer like you.” This was different. Here was a man actively seeking to recruit me, a man who saw the potential in me and the opportunity I represented for the firm.

John Green offered me the position of Green David Conway & Co’s first articled clerk in 1981.

I had a choice to make, and as ever in such matters, I asked my father, Manzoor-Ul-Haq Sheikh, for his advice. My father was a highly educated man and someone who provided me with constant support and wise counsel.

“Where did you feel most welcome?” he asked. “Where is your heart leading you?” It was leading me to GSC. 41 years later I’m still here.

Like many – perhaps every – person of colour in the UK at that time, I felt I had to work harder, do more and prove more because I was in a minority. I do believe everyone should achieve on merit alone. I say precisely that to the young lawyers I support today. But everyone, no matter what their colour or gender, should be given an equal opportunity to demonstrate that merit.

 

 

 

Marking our 50th Anniversary

PRESS RELEASE

GSC Solicitors LLP: Celebrating 50 Years of the Legal Excellence

Year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of GSC Solicitors LLP. Its first (slightly) contentious issue?

The naming of the independent law firm. It’s just one of a series of ‘GSC Stories’ set to be published throughout 2022 to mark the half-centenary.

It was 1972. John Douglas Green and David Peter Conway, the firm’s founding partners, were putting final plans in place for the launch of the law firm that would later become known as GSC Solicitors LLP.

There was just one sticking point: the firm’s name. GSC Senior Partner Saleem Sheikh takes up the story:

“Discussions went back and forth but John and David simply couldn’t agree whose name would appear first. They decided to flip a coin and John won. The firm would be called Green Conway & Co.

Yet David felt a little aggrieved. He had been qualified slightly longer than John. Alphabetically his surname came first. Conway Green & Co? John refused. He’d won the coin flip fair and square.

“It was David’s mum who broke the deadlock and called John with a potential solution. John could have his name first, she said, but David wanted the firm to bear his full name.

So Green David Conway & Co was born. For years afterwards many clients assumed ‘David’ was the never seen silent partner.”

GSC Stories

Naming the firm is the first of many stories chosen to mark the golden anniversary of a law firm which has become synonymous with client relationships that span multiple generations.

It was while recalling those stories with Head of Marketing Zhanna Sutton that Saleem realised they were too good not to be told.

Zhanna says: “50 years in business is an important milestone and deserves to be celebrated. While talking with Saleem, other partners and members of the wider GSC family, it’s clear

that our stories are about more than legal cases. They are about people who shaped our history, the clients whose lives have been changed by those people and the legal precedents set in the highest courts.”

“Like every family, some of our stories are amusing, some inspiring, some profound and some moving. Together they define the legacy of GSC and now seemed the perfect time to capture them.”

During this year, GSC Solicitors LLP will share its stories, and Saleem sees a common thread running through each one.

“We are – and have always been – lawyers for life. We have never viewed our clients as ‘cases’, ‘legal problems’ and certainly not ‘fees’. We commit to our clients in real and significant ways

and they trust us to make a difference. We are their lawyers. But we are also so much more.

“It is that approach that has seen us grow for 50 years. That is what the GSC Stories reveal. And that is why we remain well positioned to thrive for the next 50.”