Sometimes in institutional terms, something has to die before something new can live. The good news for Ashurst, as chronicled in this month’s cover feature, is that the City player is showing vivid signs of renewed life, with the firm set to post by far its best performance after a decade that has been plain bad. After the low points in late 2016 and early 2017, level-headed people were asking how long this could continue before decline became outright calamity.
The obvious caveat – and it is a substantial one – is that this has come largely by building on the ruins of what Ashurst was: a storied, corporate-driven City player with enviable history and a cohesive culture. What has emerged as the old edifice progressively crumbled is unrecognisable against Ashurst circa 2009. Thanks to its controversial merger with Blake Dawson, the shape and practice mix of the business has radically changed. Its once-vaunted private equity team has been battered down to functional coverage across Europe – the final blow to any borderline claim to first-division status being Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s five-partner Paris raid two years ago. And most of the big-name corporate figures have left over the years or retired – most recently Robert Ogilvy Watson and Simon Beddow – leaving a core corporate practice generating around 20% of its income; on paper, you would expect a firm of this heritage to be doing over 30%.
Two opposite developments in the UK high street have seen City and US firms advise as food chain Pret A Manger acquired rival Eat and high-profile British chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurant business went into administration.
Also keeping City insolvency practitioners busy was the news today (22 May) that British Steel has been put into compulsory liquidation.
Years ago, in the immediate wake of the banking crisis, I wrote a column on the notion that top London law firms, having pursued consolidation and growth for the preceding quarter century, had fallen out of love with being big. The argument was that they were increasingly focused on segmentation – meaning tighter focus on their core markets – than consolidation. I have made duffer calls over the years, but in retrospect only one of those points, on losing faith with growth, was substantively borne out. The second observation about a more clearly-segmented legal industry emerging has largely not come to pass. Major London firms have consistently eschewed growth strategies with generally poor results. But no matter the structural pressures building on the legal industry, they have yet to get used to the idea of being more rigorously focused on core markets. Incremental chipping – ditching a bit of structured finance here, a little employment disputes there – is about as good as it got.
Yet there is an increasingly salient argument to be made that major law firms have two broad approaches that look sustainable if they wish to be major forces in high-end law. The first is to operate closer to the classic partner-driven model – a simplified regime based on low leverage, partner-heavy service, and being focused in a relatively small number of markets and geographies. This is a stance successfully applied by many of the more potent US-bred law firms expanding in Europe.
Hugh Verrier’s term as White & Case chair will extend to 16 years after he was re-elected for another four years.
First elected to the helm in 2007, he will start his next stint in September, running until 2023. New York-based Verrier’s tenure has seen successive years of expansion recently, most notably in its London office. The firm declined to comment on whether the election was contested.
Greenberg Traurig is to open its fifth European office via the acquisition of a Milan boutique and the hire of two veterans from the Italian branch of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.
The US firm announced yesterday (16 May) that as of July the northern Italian city will become the location of its 40th office worldwide while its European lawyer headcount will hit 300.
The name, the Mindful Business Charter, does not in itself inspire huge confidence but, judging the legal profession on its willingness to at least try to address stress and mental health pressures, the initiative still constitutes pretty much law’s quality-of-life cutting edge.
The venture, first put together last year by Pinsent Masons, Addleshaw Goddard and Barclays, was an attempt to draw up a charter setting out what clients and law firms should reasonably expect of individual lawyers. A kind of rules of engagement, if you will, for not running your people into the ground.
International investors have been keeping UK and US counsel busy this week, with Linklaters and Kirkland & Ellis winning roles on Nestlé’s proposed $10bn sale of its skincare business.
Eversheds Sutherland, Pinsent Masons and Ashurst, meanwhile, were all in action as Japan’s largest housebuilder, Sekisui House, entered the UK market, and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) advised Spanish company Cellnex in a multibillion-euro series of acquisitions on the continent.
Osborne Clarke has made up eight partners in an improved promotion round which includes one lawyer on maternity leave and two who are working part-time.
The eight promotions are up three on last year, and include five female promotions. The partners are across the energy and utilities, financial services, real estate and infrastructure and digital business sectors.
The #MeToo debate continues to garner stories with a legal slant as the Law Society’s recent practice note on the use of legal gagging contracts has been criticised for being vague to the point of unethical.
Crispin Passmore, the former executive director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), this week slammed The Law Society’s practice note on non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in sexual harassment cases, calling for the guidance to be scrapped altogether.
Law firm culture is again under the spotlight after a survey of almost 7,000 lawyers across 135 countries found sexual harassment and bullying is rife within the legal industry, with the UK reporting above average levels of bullying.
The report, carried out by the International Bar Association, found 62% of female respondents in the UK reported they had been bullied in relation to their employment, alongside 41% of male respondents. These were both ahead of the international levels of bullying, at 55% and 30% respectively.