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Can’t make an omelette – newly-merged Norton Rose Fulbright sees exodus in Middle East

So far the high-stakes merger between Norton Rose and US practice Fulbright & Jaworski has been sealed with minimal fall-out but a prominent exception has been confirmed in the Middle East with an eight-partner team quitting the legacy Houston law firm’s Dubai arm for a rival.

Baker Botts today (16 July) confirmed the hire of a 14-lawyer team, which includes the bulk of the legacy Fulbright & Jaworski’s Dubai branch.

The eight-partner team includes corporate partner John Lonsberg, who was a key figure in putting Fulbright on the map in the Middle East. He has had experience of working in the Middle East since 1980.

Following Lonsberg are his Dubai colleagues Mark Bisch and Richard Devine, both finance partners, disputes partners Jonathan Sutcliffe and Joseph Colagiovanni, corporate partner Hassan Elsayed and financial institutions partner Philip Punwar. Sam Eversman, a finance partner also joins from Fulbright’s Riyadh branch. Joining in addition are five associates, a trainee and several support staff.

The partners will be based across Baker Botts’ network in the Middle East, including Dubai, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, although the majority will work out of Dubai.

This is the first sign of substantive fallout from the merger between Norton Rose and Fulbright, which went live last month, creating a global giant with combined revenues of nearly $2bn.

Fulbright’s legacy office was based in a different part of the emirate, Festival Tower, as opposed to the Dubai International Finance Centre where Norton Rose and the majority of international law firms are based. The departures have left the firm with only one remaining partner in its Festival Tower office, John Boehm, head of the Riyadh and Dubai practices.

With the departures the firm has around 50 lawyers in the region across Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai and Riyadh.

Kenneth Stewart, managing partner of Norton Rose Fulbright’s US member firm, said:  ‘Any combination of organisations brings inevitable changes in leadership and responsibilities and some overlap, and we understand that not all individuals will embrace those changes.  The overwhelming majority of our partners and clients are excited with our combination and the expanded global platform it provides.’

Commenting on his move Lonsberg said: ‘I knew [Baker Botts] was interested in growing its platform and practices, and I saw our team’s 30 years’ presence in the Middle East as a full complement to what Baker Botts has developed here in recent years.’

‘This group of talented and experienced lawyers will cement our position as one of the dominant legal forces in the region,’ said Robert Jordan, partner-in-charge of Baker Botts’ Middle East practice.

This move is a signal of intent for Baker Botts’ Middle East ambitions. The Houston-based energy specialist now has 40 lawyers in the region. In March the 700-lawyer firm also announced an alliance with Kuwait’s International Legal Group, Baker Botts’ first foray in the country.

The Middle East had also been an unsettled region for the legacy Norton Rose with the firm seeing a number of senior departures in recent years. However, Norton Rose Fulbright did move to bolster its City practice this week with the hire of CMS Cameron McKenna corporate partner Richard Bull. Bull, whose move was confirmed today, focuses on private equity transactions.