Rare is the opportunity to participate in a wave of enthusiastic transformation – a breaking-away from old ways and a journey to uncharted regions. Duncan Weston, Executive Partner at CMS, has played a fundamental role in several different law firm and legal industry transformations. And he’s not done yet.
Beginnings in Britain
“I qualified as a lawyer in the London office of what was then Nabarro Nathanson in 1990,” the 57-year-old Weston recalls. “I had the chance to focus on private equity and leveraged financing – we did a lot of work on a leveraged basis – and I became quite adept at it.” In 1992, as recession loomed in the UK due to high interest rates and falling housing prices, Weston turned his sights to Central Europe.
“My girlfriend at the time – now my wife – and I decided to take some time off,” he recalls with a smile. “We drove around Central and Eastern Europe soon after the Wall came down, and absolutely fell in love with Prague.” They began looking for a way to move to the Heart of Europe. “As soon as we could, we uprooted and moved,” Weston says. “Lock, stock, and barrel
McKenna & Co. in Prague
In 1993, Weston joined the Prague office of McKenna & Co, where he got a surprise. “I joined what I believed to be a big firm,” he says. “But the reality was kind of different,” as the office had “only one trainee lawyer and an office manager-come-translator at that time.”
“The previous Managing Partner left, unbeknownst to me, and I ended up as pretty much the only man left standing as a relatively junior associate,” Weston laughs. Stepping into the vacuum, he progressed quickly, and within a year was the office’s new Managing Partner.
Weston describes Prague at the time as “a hot seat – a lot of new things were going on for the region: the gas and energy markets were booming, the aviation sector, the breweries – the buzz around the place was palpable and the atmosphere was electric!” The surge in business was reflected in the office’s rapid growth.
According to Weston, in the early days after Communism, his job primarily involved drafting agreements to make them compliant with the nascent Czech law. “Investors sought safety and predictability, to be able to move capital under agreed terms,” he says, “but the market was not ripe for that yet.” It was up to the foreign lawyers to educate the market, he says, and help lawyers there learn “how to document transactions – in multiple languages – and make them easily understood to clients.”
Gabriella Ormai, who would go on to manage McKenna & Co’s (and then CMS’s) Hungarian operations for over 30 years, was there at the beginning. “McKenna & Co’s Budapest office was its first in CEE, opening in 1989,” she says. “And, as such, we were there from the get-go in the region, after the break from Communism. Soon after us, the Prague office opened as the second office in the region, in 1991.” She first met Weston in 1993. “It was at a general meeting for McKenna & Co.’s three CEE offices,” she recalls, “and we were in a small meeting room, just a few of us at that time.”
Helen Rodwell, the current Managing Partner of CMS Prague, remembers her first encounter with Weston as well. One day in 1996, while employed with Australia’s Minter Ellison, she was on a secondment with McKenna & Co. in London when she heard that Weston needed some help on a deal he was working on. “My inquisitive traveling nature meant that I put my hand up,” Rodwell says, “and within no time I had spent six weeks in a due diligence bunker and endless negotiations in Ostrava – which, back in those days, was more of an ‘exotic’ than an ‘elegant’ destination for M&A.” The process, she recalls, “was very exciting, as working with Duncan always was.”
Rodwell remembers those dynamic times well. “In those early days, the M&A market was very dynamic,” she says. “But also less sophisticated than the UK and Australian markets where I had been working. On many transactions we were testing structures for the first time and implementing risk and liability schemes under foreign laws, and we presented our clients with due diligence reports full of interesting findings!”
In January 1995 Andrew Kozlowski joined McKenna & Co’s office in Warsaw. “Duncan and I had a great working relationship from the beginning, as we had a shared vision of developing the CEE practice to be the leading law firm in the region,” says Kozlowski. “In the early 1990s, the legal framework in all CEE jurisdictions was not conducive to executing sophisticated M&A and financing transactions – so we were required to adapt western-style legal structures for them to be enforceable in individual CEE countries.”
With Kozlowski in Warsaw, Ormai in Budapest, and Weston in Prague, McKenna & Co’s CEE practice took off. “We had a combination of international people, a fleet of young local lawyers rearing to go and running the show,” Weston remembers, proudly. “The entrepreneurial spirit they had was amazing and their concentration on getting the deal done and not crossing any legal lines was second to none.”
Those first few years involved a lot of late nights, of course. “Working with Duncan was always high energy and unpredictable,” laughs Rodwell. “He was in front of the market, we did many cutting-edge deals together, and we worked tireless hours based on adrenaline and crazy market conditions that existed at the time.”
Chris Mruck, in the mid-90s a Senior Banker with the EBRD in Prague, met Weston socially and became friends with him before first retaining him in 1999, by which time he had joined Advent International, the global private equity investors. Since then, he says, “Duncan and I must have worked on at least ten separate transactions together,” and he recalls his friend as being “the right lawyer for what was then an extremely unusual and demanding environment to do deals in.”
“Duncan stands out as a lawyer for his creative and constructive problem-solving skills and for his unrelenting focus on getting get things done,” Mruck says. “I would describe his approach as entrepreneurial in the best sense of the word! A further key aspect of his philosophy is to always go out of his way promote co-operation between opposing legal teams.”
The Golden Age
As Weston helped grow McKenna & Co in CEE, his responsibilities and duties grew as well. Having become a Local Partner in 1994, he became an Equity Partner in 1995, shortly before McKenna & Co. merged with Cameron Markby Hewitt and transformed into Cameron McKenna in 1997. He became the Head of Private Equity for CEE at Cameron McKenna in 1998. By the time the firm became a founding member of the CMS alliance in 1999, it was cooking with gas. “During this period, we had managed to build a leading international law firm of some 40 to 50 people in Prague.”
In 2001, Robert Windmill, CMS’s Managing Partner for CEE, retired, and Weston was elected in his place. CMS would eventually describe its Central and Eastern European practice as “having grown dramatically” during Weston’s time as Director for CEE. The man himself is humble, however. “Over my time as Managing Partner for CEE, we expanded a bit,” he says of Cameron McKenna’s merger with the Bucharest-based Hayhurst Robinson at the start of 2005, which allowed the firm to promote a strong presence in Bulgaria and Romania as well.
His friends are less modest on his behalf. “Duncan expanded the region a great deal,” Ormai says with a smile. “The Hayhurst Robinson merger was very complicated due to local legal regulations, but, under Duncan, it went smoothly, and the region began to integrate more and more.” She also points to the 2007 opening of CMS Cameron McKenna’s Kyiv office under Weston’s CEE stewardship, making it the first English firm with an office in that country. “The Kyiv office was a big step–it happened following a surge in investor interest in Ukraine, so Duncan felt the pulse of the business and made the right call in initiating it.”
Weston says that, during his directorial tenure, he worked to “make sure people understood what was going on in CEE” and says that this included a lot of politics and profile building for some of the partners in the region. “We had to position the business as a leading part of the firm globally in order to get the most of CEE. That was the time when most entrepreneurial startups in CEE became prominent. This allowed me to go back out West and to present the firm with numbers showing strong growth performance for the region.” Soon, he says, CEE became an asset: “A true business gem, a real growth market.”
His managerial responsibilities didn’t keep him from his own practice, of course, and in 2006 Weston was named one of the 30 most influential private equity lawyers in the world by Private Equity International.
Taking the Reins of CMS
In May of 2008, after almost 15 years of playing an integral role in the growth of McKenna & Co/Cameron McKenna/CMS in CEE, Weston took his biggest step yet.
“There was a big election, in the firm, for the Managing Partner position,” Weston says, “and this included, for the first time, the CEE part of the firm as well.” He was asked to stand in the election on the shoulders of his success in CEE, during which time the firm’s fees from the region had tripled. “I believe I became the first Partner from outside of London to end up running the firm,” he says with a smile. “It was considered a real success story for our CEE business.” Successful in his campaign, Weston moved back to London.
“When Duncan stopped being head of the CEE region,” Ormai says, “and got elected as MP for the whole firm, we were all very, proud. People back in CEE – we all felt like one of us had been elected – and he is one of us.”
Unfortunately, his timing was not great. Although he was quoted in a CMS press release from the time as declaring that one his objectives in his new role was “to grow the firm aggressively,” in fact almost immediately after his move the global financial crisis hit.
“Getting in with all the financial turmoil was quite challenging,” Weston admits. “The UK was hit really badly and that forced us to reorganize our business to adjust.” Still, despite the global economic downturn, CMS Cameron McKenna managed to move forward under Weston’s leadership, completing a merger with Scotland’s Dundas & Wilson law firm and initiating the mergers with Olswang and Nabarro that effectively doubled CMS Cameron McKenna’s size.
“It was a full circle for me, in a way,” Weston points out. “The folks at Olswang and Nabarro that I coordinated the merger with were the same people I knew when I started my traineeship at Nabarro a few decades back.” In 2016, at the end of his second four-year term atop CMS Cameron McKenna, and with the three-way merger nearly complete, Weston stepped down as Managing Partner. “Stephen Millar, a new energetic leader, took over as the Managing Partner and oversaw the implementation of the merger together with Senior Partner Penelope Warne,” Weston says. “They have done an excellent job and it was a high-note ending to some very tough years, financially speaking.” The three-way merger was completed in May of 2017.
In addition to joining forces with Olswang and Nabarro, under Weston’s leadership CMS also opened offices in Brazil, Russia, China, Turkey, and the Middle East. His friends in CEE speak in glowing terms about his stewardship of the firm – and about him personally. “He is a great leader and it is such an enjoyment to work with him,” Ormai says. “He is very supportive of people and energizes people around him; this is precisely why, with him, CMS grew so significantly. His growth mentality, let’s call it, and focus on expanding the firm in all regards, I think it’s part of the CEE way of thinking he took with him.”
Helen Rodwell agrees, pointing out that Weston was “not only a fantastic commercially-minded lawyer, but he was a great boss, able to inspire and motivate people to work as hard as needed, a visionary for our business in CEE and, since moving to the UK and to his global role, a visionary for the entire CMS business.” As a result, she says, “the CEE team is very proud that our original managing partner from Prague and then managing director for the region went on to become our global leader of CMS.”
In 2016, after finishing his reign as Managing Partner of CMS Cameron McKenna, Weston became an Executive Partner at CMS, in which role he, along with Chairman Pierre-Sebastien Thill and Executive Director Matthias Litchblau, oversees the global operations of CMS’s 17 member firms around the world.
His friends and former colleagues are glad to have him in that role. “Duncan is the best man for the job, hands down, to lead CMS as Executive Partner right now,” Ormai insists. “His thinking and leadership changed the way business is done. He focuses on the big picture, immediately recognizing systematic problems and rooting out their causes, thus allowing for more space for growth and development.”
Weston is, it appears, an innovative entrepreneur at heart. Helen Rodwell describes him as “a great visionary,” recalling that “back in 2000 he spent months working on a business plan for the design and production of a secure box that would be integrated into the building structure of all new homes and accommodation in the future and used for taking delivery of e-commerce purchases – and that was in the days when e-commerce didn’t exist.” She smiles. “That particular business plan should not have been binned!”
Ormai suggests that Weston’s creativity and commitment to new possibilities is a core part of his success. “As a leader, he has always been available, friendly, and a real problem-solver. Duncan is always at the forefront of developments and his eagerness for innovation has moved us as a firm ahead.”
That eagerness for invention hasn’t changed. Now in Milan with his wife Candy and their children Sebastian, Francesca, Toby, and Phoebe, the former CMS Cameron McKenna Managing Partner is about to receive a Ph.D. in digital business models for professional service firms, and he’s focusing on a new industry-wide project called Lupl, which he describes as a “digital platform designed by and for lawyer on all sides of the market for matter-synchronization of legal services globally.” He reports that partnerships have been formed across the world to support the development of the platform and that “a private beta was launched in March 2020 with a full launch scheduled for Q1 2021.” Unable to contain his excitement, Weston insists that Lupl will help change the legal industry in the same way that cross-border organizational structures have done in the past.
“The organizational model is the geographical one which brings together existing law firms,” he says. “Lupl, in a similar way, seeks to do that, but not just for law firms that are part of any one network – but from all over the world. It’s an open industry platform – the first of its kind in the legal business – that will enable lawyers from all over the world to communicate and exchange ideas, documents, and data in a secure environment, in one place, without ever having to worry about misplacing something.” Lupl, which is cloud-based, he says, will “simplify the way lawyers work together.” Ultimately, he says, “by supporting the development of Lupl and combining the idea of global collaboration with our geographical expansion, we hope to create transformational change in our industry for decades to come.”
Still, as he’s looking forward, he admits to some nostalgia about the wild times on the ground in CEE. Weston says that “I often reflect back to those days and miss very much the excitement and entrepreneurial energy that this time had and which I see has changed for ever as the markets have become more mature and normalized.” He says that he sometimes wishes he was “back in the trenches working on exciting deals like the Bulgarian Telco privatization.”
Speaking of those that are sill there, Weston says that he regrets not seeing more of “those founding super stars who are still with CMS – those great people, Andrew Kozlowski and Gabriella Ormai. To them I say well done! And to our newer and tireless leaders in CEE, the likes of [current CMS Budapest Managing Partner] Dora Petranyi and Helen Rodwell – great stuff and lots of luck for the future!”