Legal Business Blogs

Signs of intent – Freshfields shrugs off US caution to secure high-stakes West Coast launch

Observers of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have grown used to the City giant undercutting bold claims for its US strategy with half-hearted execution but the London leader has belied that image to announce an audacious launch in the key West Coast legal market.

The announcement today (1 July), sees the Magic Circle firm recruit five senior lawyers from major US firms to launch a practice in Silicon Valley, under the leadership of Davis Polk & Wardwell securities partner Sarah Solum.

The team is rounded out by Sidley Austin partner John Fisher, who specialises in technology and life sciences M&A, Latham & Watkins tax partner Maj Vaseghi and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati disputes partner Boris Feldman. Wilson Sonsini litigation associate Doru Gavril joins as a partner.

The seven-partner outpost will include Freshfields partners Pamela Marcogliese (capital markets) and Alan Ryan (antitrust), who are transferring from the firm’s respective arms in New York and Brussels. Freshfields’ other US practice is in Washington DC.

The move is only the second time that a Magic Circle firm has dared to venture into the key West Coast legal market since Clifford Chance made its ill-fated move in the region with a team from Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison nearly 20 years ago.

The move will be seen as a doubling down on Freshfields’ headline-grabbing recruitment of a four-partner M&A team from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton led by highly-rated deal veteran Ethan Klingsberg (pictured) at the end of 2019.

Commenting on the move as US corporate head, Klingsberg put out a suitably bullish spin: ‘Combining this dream team of talent with our global platform and our high-powered teams in New York and DC enables us to respond to the needs of Bay Area clients. These needs are global, complex and demanding of constant focus and creativity. Just as Bay Area clients are fearless in their approach, so is Freshfields. We are committed to serving our clients with the broad and deep resources that their strategic plans merit.’

Such sentiments would until recently have been dismissed as laughable by US rivals but Freshfields’ recent moves have attracted plenty of grudging respect.

While California’s technology-heavy sector has become one of the more lucrative legal markets in the world after 20 years of exponential growth from iconic Silicon Valley companies, it has also proven a very tough market for out-of-town law firms to crack.

Freshfields was known to have previously flirted with taking on a productive West Coast team years ago from the collapsing Dewey & LeBoeuf but the group ultimately went to Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

The latest two team hires in New York and Silicon Valley will be seen as evidence that Freshfields is finally moving to make the kind of sustained investments in the US that a camp of its key corporate partners have long championed.

US strategy is also due to be a key issue in this year’s looming leadership election to replace senior partner Edward Braham. The latest move at least suggests that the progressive wing of the firm is winning the argument.

While there has been much talk of a team forming around German partner Helmut Bergmann, possibly including partners David Sonter and Jennifer Bethlehem, other potential figures to watch include corporate partner Alan Mason and Asia head Georgia Dawson.

For more analysis on Freshfields’ direction and leadership see last year’s cover feature, The devil you know

For our take on its recent New York M&A push, see our recent Deal View column