There is a school of thought that the late 1980s and early 1990s proved singularly fertile ground for developing outstanding corporate lawyers. You can see the logic. The deregulation of Big Bang ushered in fresh investment, players and techniques and unleashed a wave of activity to be swiftly followed by the early 1990s’ recession.
Young corporate lawyers honed their skills by exposure to new ideas when times were good, only to sharpen their business-winning instincts and apply their abilities in volatile markets that demanded flexibility and flair. Certainly, the generation of M&A partners that came through during those formative years has cast its shadow over the profession for a long time. But those days are ending as these figures either move into c-suite roles, retire or join clients.
So it seems worth noting that the current crop of corporate partners, newly-made up through to about ten years’ vintage, has plied its trade in similarly volatile times. As our cover feature this month on M&A reports, developing during the post-Lehman years has given this group an entrepreneurial drive. This is perhaps most notable at Linklaters, which for all its qualities until recently had a problem developing corporate lawyers not reliant on its superb client roster. In contrast, its fêted younger generation of partners – among them David Avery-Gee (pictured centre), Matt Bland (left), Simon Branigan (right) and Dan Schuster-Woldan – crackle with energy and drive. There is a similar team spirit at Freshfields and Slaughter and May. Despite the dramatic US inroads in private equity, in mainstream M&A this trio remains perhaps more dominant than a decade ago.
And for all the long-term shifts in the legal industry – and changing nature of deal work – corporate is as central to leading law firms as ever. True, much of the grunt work once pushed to junior lawyers now goes to paralegals and automated processes and price pressure can be intense in the mid and lower market. But the unprecedented complexity and regulatory scrutiny in cross-border M&A means high-end work has never been more profitable (in contrast with much banking law, which is being shoved down the food chain in many firms even as contentious work fills the space).
How effective leading City law firms are at cultivating, motivating and captivating the individuals that secure top-end M&A will go a good way to ensuring their long-term success or failure (current inelegant shuffling on lockstep is not a great sign in this regard).
If turbulence breeds talented deal lawyers, London at least looks set to be knee deep in rainmakers given the headwinds created by the EU referendum. But while Brexit will be a huge challenge to the City as a deal hub, it will take a lot to damage London. The threat to its position will make the professionals that ply their trade in the Square Mile fight all the harder to retain ground and seize emerging opportunities. You just do not see that spirit in the business districts of Frankfurt or Paris.
Corporate remains king of City law. All leading law firms need to know where it fits into their empires.
Read more on the City’s top corporate practices in: ‘The M&A Report’
Read more on Linklaters’ corporate reshuffle here.