Close-Up: Newsmaker - The legal eagle who shaped the ad industry

Roger Alexander, the new chairman of Lewis Silkin, tells Caroline Marshall why adland's negotiations still make him tick.

Imagine you're the boss - who do you call when you're fired? First, your partner. Second, your lawyer. And if that lawyer is Roger Alexander at Lewis Silkin, you're lucky. Brilliant, softly spoken, calm, with the looks of an ancient philosopher and the wisdom to go with them, he is the "Don" of advertising and marketing law.

Alexander recently became the chairman of Lewis Silkin, moving to the new role from that of senior partner and head of its marketing services practice after a 40-year career there. His shift from frontline management makes way for a new generation of young partners including Ian Jeffrey, Brinsley Dresden and Jo Evans. Now, Alexander will concentrate on what he does best - deal-making and representing executives at the highest levels of the business.

Confirmed as the UK's pre-eminent advertising lawyer in the latest edition of the Legal 500, which ranks Britain's legal experts, Alexander has somehow failed to amass the coterie of frothing detractors that members of his profession normally attract. Criticise him for the amount he earns if you like - he is, after all, one of the highest-paid lawyers in the business, earning a reported £400 an hour - but you won't find anyone to criticise his track record.

Alexander has taken on many of the cases that have shaped the advertising industry as we know it today: everything to do with Abbott Mead Vickers, from the agency's inception to its flotation, partial sale and subsequent full sale to Omnicom for £360 million; the foundation of Gold Greenlees Trott and the later ousting of Dave Trott; Christine Walker being injuncted by her former employer, Zenith Media, setting up Walker Media and establishing a joint venture with M&C Saatchi; the sale of The Partners to Young & Rubicam, the purchase of Chiat/Day by its managers from Omnicom and the creation of St Luke's.

He is the deal-maker's deal-maker, fully capable of going 15 rounds in any legal fight. Tim Birt, the head of the advertising and media law group at Osbourne Clark, has opposed Alexander on many occasions and is seen as a younger version of the legal eagle. "Roger has a wealth of knowledge about the industry that he combines with charm and tenacity," he observes.

"He gets called in on the really sticky cases."

Alexander got the advertising bug when he went skiing and by chance met Mike Gold, then of KLP, later of French Gold Abbott and Gold Greenlees Trott. Gold was picked up at the airport by Mead, and two enduring friendships and business partnerships were born. It is an industry that he believes in: "My first impression was that people in advertising were very bright, and always doing something - hiring, firing, buying, ripping off each others' ads, getting into all kinds of difficulties. What they really appreciated was commercially insightful advice from someone who understood the industry, its players and its terms of art. They were legally unwashed but quick to grasp the issues."

Gold, who left GGT and the industry in 1994, describes Alexander as: "My source of wisdom, my counsel since the very beginning, someone with an interest in what makes humans tick and completely un-lawyerly in many respects."

What does Alexander make of advertising's famously colourful legal practices?

The hiring of new creative directors with an incumbent in place, the pinching of clients and staff, the deals done on a nod and a wink, the huge severance packages - the reason why one former creative director with a few pay-offs to his name famously christened his boat Severance. "My colleague Michael Burd owns about 90 per cent of that boat!" Alexander quips.

In his view, has the industry got more professional over the years? "Things have improved," he says. "Once, agencies could throw money at legal problems but now they can't - the holding companies won't allow it."

Alexander does not have the mindset or approach of a lawyer. For a start, Lewis Silkin has run good advertising; one print ad by Leagas Delaney, showing a "Trespassers will be prosecuted" sign above the headline "Not necessarily", won several awards. You expect him to be cautious, logical and wary, wondering always where the questions are leading and what impression he is making - he is not. His wife of 38 years is a marital therapist and he cuts straight to the emotional drivers in any case. "The key is understanding the mindset and character of the principal players," he says. "The law plays a part, of course, but when you are negotiating a deal for a departing executive, you've got one shot at pitching it and the more you understand about motivations the better."

Alexander is a rare example of someone who has stuck with one firm for his entire career. There was a two-week blip after school when he went into accountancy - "I knew instantly it wasn't for me, all those rows of numbers with no human component" - but the next move was the right one. He was articled to John Silkin at £4 a week, became a partner at 23, was the lead partner from 1989 to 1998 and the senior partner from 1999. When he arrived, the firm had five partners, was based in Peckham and Westminster and, according to Gold, handled cases for all manner of South London lowlifes. It now has 43 partners, and an impressive art collection adorns the walls of its flash City offices.

He is 62; presumably the next question is when to retire. He has thought about slowing down but working as many hours a week as he does now - 50, which is more than he put in 30 years ago - is "his current intention".

Lewis Silkin now offers a broad canvas of services and his energy is as great as ever: "I get a huge kick out of issues to do with the world of fragmented media. We are a one-stop shop for legal services in the manner of a full-service agency."

If he were to slow down, there is plenty to keep him busy. Further non-executive positions to go with his role at Walker Books might beckon, and then there are his grandchildren, gardening, photography and a place in the south of France. Whatever the timescale, there is no question that Alexander will continue to be a force for good in this industry, and that he has kept a degree of civility in negotiations that otherwise could have got very bloody. He can't give up his regular table at The Ivy yet - advertising needs him and his clients need him. Gardening must wait.

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 62

Lives: Hampstead, London

Family: Wife Monica, children Jessica and Lucy, grandchildren Jonah,

Anya and Jake

Describe yourself in three words: A lucky man

Most treasured possession: My garden

Favourite TV programme: Shameless

Last book read: Tales of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

Person most respected in the industry: Too many to mention

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