Legal Business Blogs

Q&A: Jenner & Block’s Charlie Lightfoot talks about leadership, White & Case, and ‘getting my hands dirty’

Chicago litigation firm Jenner & Block’s launch of its first overseas office earlier this year in London was as soft as they come. Is there space for another litigation firm or will London be its graveyard? Charlie Lightfoot (pictured), the man tasked with growing the firm’s London office, talks of the firm’s prospects. 

Why did you want to join Jenner & Block?

It took a lot of hard thought but these opportunities don’t come around very often and it’s an exciting step. I’d been at White & Case for 16 years and always been very happy but the more I learned about Jenner & Block the more I realised why it was the right fit for me. I guess there was a leap of faith but every lawyer I met at Jenner & Block gave a consistent message, which is always a good sign, about the personality of the firm and how they felt about the firm opening in London. They also take the quality of their lawyering very, very seriously.

Did you look what Richard East at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Natasha Harrison at Boies, Schiller & Flexner are doing and think ‘I want a piece of that’?

I was aware of Quinn and Boies and it gives you some element of confidence if you see other people doing a similar thing and apparently succeeding. But I was much more focused on what Jenner wanted to do and its vision for the office.

There are many people in London who don’t know much about Jenner & Block. What’s your message to the market? 

I’m excited to raise the profile here and educate people about Jenner & Block. They are a firm that handles transactional work as well but their roots, which was attractive to me, are in disputes. Its reputation in the US for disputes is really first class and once you realise you’re dealing with an organisation of that level of quality it becomes very attractive.

Is there more than that? Cooley came to London and said ‘we do M&A for technology companies’, Quinn came and said ‘we’ll sue banks’ and Boies came and said ‘we sue people for hedge funds’. Is there a specific focus? 

‘The message is that we are now bringing the high quality Jenner brand to London. We’re pushing our front door to London to better service our clients. It’s a three-pronged approach of white-collar, commercial litigation and arbitration. We want to push all three of these equally. That’s not to say there won’t be a transactional piece later but these are the priorities. Our client base needs all of that work. We’re excited about the prospects for international arbitration. It’s something that has been growing and that is set to continue.

Is much of the US practice transferable to London?

It is transferable. Until the opening of the London office they were a domestic practice but it’s an incredibly international practice base. We have these clients we know need assistance in London, and I hope to generate our own work too, we’re going to be an office that is going to support Jenner’s existing client base.

You weren’t in a leadership position at White & Case. What will your leadership style be like at Jenner?

As an experienced partner you are in a leadership role anyway. I’m a consensual person, who leads from the front. I enjoy getting my hands dirty on cases and working with teams. I love doing cases and I love being a lawyer but the strongest reason for this transition was the opportunity to take more of leadership role and a step in my career I was happy to make.

How do you plan to grow the office?

It’s going to be a steady expansion and my role is to use my knowledge of the London market to find the right people to help them get the message to our client base that we have strong capability in London. 

I learned a lot from White & Case. When I joined there were just 50 lawyers in London and now it’s got around 400 lawyers. I’ve been through the process of watching something grow and I’ve learned a lot from that.  I’m optimistic that Jenner’s London office will become busier and will need to grow to meet that demand.

London can be a graveyard for some US firms – Edwards Wildman Palmer and Bingham McCutchen to name two – are there any lessons to be learned in not being half-hearted?

London is a tough legal market but Jenner, from its Chicago roots, has taken on tough legal markets in New York and Los Angeles and has succeeded despite being an outsider. It now sees that the next natural progression is to London.