The shifting interests of international business are echoed in recent law firm moves across Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and reflected in the recently published 2016 The Legal 500 EMEA, which added 15 countries to its coverage over the past two years to address growing interest in Africa, as well as the return of international work to jurisdictions such as Iran and Iraq.
Looking at EMEA results, two core themes emerge: a realignment of priorities among international practices and an emergence of firms positioned as the go-to contender for regional work.
That realignment has seen downsizing and consolidation in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Germany and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whereas law firms have been investing in Africa, France and Italy.
The following comments on The Legal 500 are based on number of recommendations in the top three tiers of rankings. In Germany, several US law firms exited the market or closed smaller offices, leaving Europe’s largest economy now dominated by German or UK-originated firms. White & Case is the only US firm present ranked in the top five (tied fifth with Hengeler Mueller).
In the UAE, office closures in Abu Dhabi – including by Latham & Watkins and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) – signal a refocus on greater profitability in the growing commercial centre in Dubai, seat of the increasingly influential Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). Regional heavyweight Al Tamimi & Co leads the UAE rankings, just ahead of Dentons, Hadef & Partners, Clyde & Co and Allen & Overy (A&O).
In CEE, international firms remain prominent in the region’s larger markets despite some exits and downsizing. Poland is dominated by international firms, led by Dentons, Clifford Chance (CC), CMS and Linklaters, the latter being tied with the top independent Wardyński & Partners. In Romania, local firms are more dominant: Nestor Nestor Diculescu Kingston Petersen ties for first place with Ţuca Zbârcea & Asociaţii, just ahead of CMS and Linklaters’ spin-off Kinstellar. Szecskay is the only local firm in Hungary’s top five.
In France, HSF and Paul Hastings are emerging as high-end contenders, while DLA Piper and Jones Day both recruited heavily in 2015. Gide Loyrette Nouel ranks comfortably at number one, followed by A&O, CC, Jones Day and a fifth place tie between Hogan Lovells and White & Case.
In the ever-fluid Italian market, Dentons has recruited heavily to launch in Milan and DLA Piper also made significant ground.
Across Africa, substantial efforts have been made to forge mergers or associations to facilitate international business. The firms with the most rankings across the 14 African markets currently covered are: Norton Rose Fulbright (NRF), Bowman Gilfillan, Baker & McKenzie, ENSafrica and Webber Wentzel.
The realisation among Euro independents that they cannot compete with the largest firms for global coverage has led to sizeable law firms tying their identity to a particular region. Leading examples include Al Tamimi across the Middle East, which competes ably for top rankings and several regional firms also attract top work across CEE – these include Kinstellar (which recently opened in Kiev), as well as Austria-bred firms Schoenherr and Wolf Theiss, plus Serbia-based Karanović & Nikolić. All four rank among the top eight firms across the region. In the Baltic states, the creation by merger and rearrangement of new legal brands Ellex and Cobalt evidences a similar proposition.
The rankings demonstrate that elite independent law firms provide coverage and expertise to rival the global law firms in core markets – showing another way to skin a cat.
Mike Nash, editor, The Legal 500 EMEA
Read more on this subject in: ‘The Euro Elite 2016: The inaugural Legal Business report on Europe’s top 100 independent law firms’