Boston Consulting general counsel Jeremy Barton tells Alex Aldridge about the collapse of Andersen, commuting from Paris and fulfilling his management ambitions
“Good lawyers and good consultants do pretty much the same thing: we come up with creative solutions to problems,” says Jeremy Barton, who has recently been appointed general counsel at leading global management adviser Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
“This probably explains why I find them such a rewarding group to work with,” he adds, leaning back in his chair at BCG’s plush offices in Mayfair, central London. “You can really meet with them intellectually – they understand you, they challenge you.”
It may also explain why so many of BCG’s 3,900 consultants, including the firm’s regional chairs of Europe and the Americas, are legally trained, many arriving via stints at law firms.
So how does Barton, 45, whose appointment at BCG was preceded by 10 years working in-house at Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young, see himself – lawyer or consultant?
“I sometimes refer to myself as a legal business adviser,” he says.
Barton’s association with consulting began in 1997 when he received a call from a headhunter looking to fill an in-house position in Andersen’s European legal team. At the time he was a private practice lawyer in Norton Rose’s Paris office.
“The prospect of working in-house in a global professional services firm with a turnover of $8bn (£5.7bn) sounded extremely interesting,” recalls Barton.
Yet it took over a year for him to make up his mind on whether or not to leave private practice.
“It was a very difficult decision: on the one hand I considered that I wasn’t far off partnership, and I really enjoyed working at Norton Rose. On the other, it was clear that there were going to be opportunities for management at Andersen – something I’d always been interested in – as the head of the team was going to retire in a couple of years. I’d have had to wait years for that in a law firm, so I went for it.”
Still based in Paris – a city he fell in love with while competing there in a running competition as a Cambridge University student – Barton quickly rose through the ranks at Andersen, becoming head of its European legal team in 2000, then worldwide deputy general counsel in 2002. However, satisfaction quickly gave way to anxiety as Andersen began its dramatic implosion.
Barton found the dismantling of his team of 25 – most of whom he had recruited himself – “immensely personally challenging”, although he admits that there were positive elements to emerge from the chaos: “The wind-up was unbelievable, dismantling this huge company which spanned nearly 90 countries. I gained about five years’ experience in 12 months.”
It was that experience which led Ernst & Young, which was about to embark on a review of its structure and management processes, to offer him an escape route in June 2003.
Now married with a young family, Barton spent the next three years commuting from his home in Paris to Ernst & Young’s headquarters in London where his team was based, before the slog became too much, and he, his wife and three young daughters returned to London in 2006.
Then, last year, just 18 months back into his new life in London, Barton got another fateful call from a headhunter. Although a move was the last thing on his mind after the personal and professional upheaval of the previous years, he found BCG’s offer irresistible: “BCG’s GC receives a position on its executive committee. Given my interest in management and strategy, that was a huge draw.”
Alongside the executive committee responsibilities, Barton’s role at BCG, which he has held for six months, consists of overseeing the in-house legal team and risk management function. The latter is an area which the firm is taking increasingly seriously in the wake of Enron, Andersen and, more recently, the crises in the banking sector.
“Confidence in a brand can collapse very quickly from a risk incident,” observes Barton. “The danger is that consultants may be perceived as becoming too close to the decision makers, meaning a plaintiff seeks to associate them with an actual breakdown. You saw that in Enron, where the consultants – not BCG I should add – came very close to being litigated against.”
In line with BCG’s credit crunch-defying strategy to increase its current annual revenues of approximately $2.5 bn (£1.8bn) during the next few years, Barton is planning to expand the in-house legal team, which currently numbers seven, to a global total of between 15-20. In the short term, he is looking to add three lawyers in Europe.
Managing the team – the rest of whom are based at the firm’s Boston headquarters – involves Barton making fortnightly trips to the US. On top of that, he attends executive committee meetings, which rotate between the 66 countries in which the firm has a presence, every two months.
“Juggling work and a family while you’re travelling so much, and negotiating those competing calls on your time, can be tough,” says Barton, whose passion for running has had to take a backseat.
At present BCG does not have a strict panel of external law firms, although its Boston office has a historic relationship with US outfit WilmerHale. Barton will supplement this arrangement by putting in place “optimal law firm relationships”.
So far he has signed up Norton Rose, Linklaters and Mayer Brown. In addition, he plans to review all the local firms BCG instructs out of its offices in smaller jurisdictions.
So is Barton going to stick around at BCG, or will those nomadic tendencies – and nostalgia for La Ville-Lumiere – see him move on again in a few years?
“This position holds such fantastic opportunities for me to learn about running a business that I can envisage being here for the rest of my days – although I’ve said that before.”
Career timeline: Jeremy Barton