The golden age of law firm leadership has passed… what now?

The golden age of law firm leadership has passed… what now?

I used to say three things when asked for a view on the quality of leadership in the profession. Firstly, that it was pretty good (certainly better than commonly supposed). Secondly, the standard has generally improved (since the early 2000s). And, thirdly, the notion that law lags far behind most industries in management is nonsense (poor leadership being rife).

It was only when recently asked this by a new reporter – an experienced business correspondent but new to the profession – I realised that I could only now stand by the latter contention. After all, there is still much to be said for the disciplines of the owner-manager structure, even amid New Law disruption (and perhaps more than ever in an age that has revived the fashion for the cash-burn phase). But as someone who has met hundreds of managing and senior partners, my view is that this is a long way from the golden age of law firm leadership. Standards of operational polish have continued to improve – there is a reason that major law firms so rarely fail in the UK. That matters, but it is only part of the equation in an industry facing structural issues. Continue reading “The golden age of law firm leadership has passed… what now?”

No-one cares about those corporate values

No-one cares about those corporate values

Attending a conference recently for general counsel was a reminder that for all the chasm that remains between clients and law firms, they have both imbibed many of the same corporate fashions. A few years back it was all adding value and performance, now it is ‘values’, ‘authenticity’ and other forms of Diet Coke morality.

Talk to law firms, as with plcs, and without irony, you will hear much about ‘tone from the top’, ‘walking the talk’ and interchangeably using ‘piece’ when you mean ‘issue’. Which would all be fine if there was any indication this was leading to a more ethical or caring profession. It would also help if such talk resonated remotely beyond the upper echelons of the corporate and professional services worlds, and did not provoke huge cynicism in staff and clients. Continue reading “No-one cares about those corporate values”

Brexit looms yet City law tilts further towards US leaders

Brexit looms yet City law tilts further towards US leaders

Striking numbers abound in this year’s Global London table, if you are into that kind of thing. The three pace-setting US brands in London – Latham & Watkins, Kirkland & Ellis and White & Case – are all generating in the $300m region in the Square Mile, last year saw the first $10m lateral and my back-of-the-envelope scribbling indicates that the top 50 US firms are comfortably pulling in over $5bn in the UK.

The market is increasingly now defined by this trio, predictably so in the case of Latham, though City lawyers are still trying to get their heads around the idea of Kirkland and White & Case as mounting a frontal challenge. A few years ago, I’d have been equally sceptical, particularly in the latter’s case, but if there is a glaring hole in the game plan of these two outfits, they are hiding it well. With all three making ground in mainstream transactional work through 2017 and securing significant hires – the idea that certain kinds of M&A will remain the preserve of City advisers over the next three years looks fanciful.

Continue reading “Brexit looms yet City law tilts further towards US leaders”

Deal view: Cleary Gottlieb seeks to avoid City M&A anonymity in the age of US disruptors

Deal view: Cleary Gottlieb seeks to avoid City M&A anonymity in the age of US disruptors

The London contingent of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton has recently moved across the road into premises so new they do not yet have a postcode recognised by Google Maps. The irony is not lost if you consider the firm’s role as counsel to Google on some of the most high-profile antitrust cases in recent years. You would have thought they would have had that detail covered.

Uncharted or otherwise, the shiny new office can only be seen as a vote of confidence from Manhattan, especially as it will allow the City branch to accommodate some 180 lawyers – 40 more than it currently houses. But despite an exceptional competition practice and a long-established European network, Cleary ’s struggle to become a big hitter in London for mainstream M&A has been evident. Continue reading “Deal view: Cleary Gottlieb seeks to avoid City M&A anonymity in the age of US disruptors”

Disputes Eye: Crime pays as white-collar hires dominate recruitment

Disputes Eye: Crime pays as white-collar hires dominate recruitment

If you are a senior litigator looking for a lucrative move, it does not hurt to be a white-collar specialist. As Edwards Gibson founder Scott Gibson observes: ‘It’s like private equity, where individuals can always move. In the white-collar world, people’s reputations can be enough to attract interest.’

Such moves include last September, when King & Spalding hired Gareth Rees QC from the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). Rees has pedigree, having acted as the FRC’s executive director of enforcement and executive counsel, leading prosecutions since 2012. But such moves are becoming common. Serious Fraud Office (SFO) bribery and corruption co-head Ben Morgan joined Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer last year after a five-year stint at the agency (an ultra-rare London partner hire for the firm). Stewarts last summer hired Dechert fraud veteran David Hughes and in the autumn Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher recruited SFO veteran Sacha Harber-Kelly, a key figure in crafting the agency’s deferred prosecution agreement with Rolls-Royce. Since January, King & Spalding hired Berwin Leighton Paisner head of corporate crime and investigations, Aaron Stephens, while Ropes & Gray in February secured Clifford Chance partner Judith Seddon to lead its seven-strong team in London, alongside US-trained Amanda Raad. Continue reading “Disputes Eye: Crime pays as white-collar hires dominate recruitment”

Letter from… Latin America: Blood vs bureaucracy – market forces weigh on Latam counsel

Letter from… Latin America: Blood vs bureaucracy – market forces weigh on Latam counsel

‘In the blacksmith’s house, the knives are made of wood’ – a common saying in Central America, which encapsulates an enduring truth across legal markets in the region: for all the formal education, technical nous and practical experience that resides with their partners, firms often fail to apply the same focus they afford their clients to their own organisation.

The official reasons for this are as varied as they are hollow – volume of work, pace of development or the classic ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach. But with an eye to the Latin American market, organisational structure – particularly the prevalence of the family firm – is a far more pertinent consideration than given credit. Continue reading “Letter from… Latin America: Blood vs bureaucracy – market forces weigh on Latam counsel”

The Last Word – Views from the market

The Last Word – Views from the market

To mark the launch of our 2018 Global London report, we ask senior figures at leading US firms in London for a progress update

Keeping talent happy

‘Until a few years ago it was very hard to get a UK partner to leave their firm. Today we see the pendulum swinging: it went from extreme loyalty to far less. The focus for US firms has to be on how to keep people. Historically, Proskauer has done that really well.’
Mary Kuusisto, London office head, Proskauer Rose Continue reading “The Last Word – Views from the market”

Women deal stars: plenty to celebrate so ditch the understatement

Women deal stars: plenty to celebrate so ditch the understatement

In a blow for traditionalists, our latest cover feature eschews profiling a group of hard-working, smart, highly-confident men who are talented lawyers to instead profile a group of hard-working, smart, variably-confident women who are talented lawyers. Radical stuff.

But then the career cycle for too many ambitious female deal lawyers remains nasty, brutish and short. While women increasingly advance into senior roles in advisory practice areas and even more so among the ranks of senior general counsel, in the upper reaches of transactional law, it is still a boys’ club and anyone claiming differently does not know many corporate lawyers. Continue reading “Women deal stars: plenty to celebrate so ditch the understatement”

Slashing to victory – the most dangerous myth

Slashing to victory – the most dangerous myth

‘Turnover for vanity, profit for sanity.’ How many times have you heard that phrase or variations of the theme espoused in the legal industry? A lot since the banking crisis recast the profession.

Commercial firms are forever chasing the grail of higher profitability to the extent of fashioning strategy around the notion of slashing the business to achieve it. People used to forecast consolidation and the dawn of the $10bn law firm – now it is as common for law firm leaders to talk of City-bred institutions getting smaller. Continue reading “Slashing to victory – the most dangerous myth”

A shock to the system as Freshfields heavyweight departs

A shock to the system as Freshfields heavyweight departs

Given that it has been so well telegraphed that the $10m lateral was coming to the Square Mile, the shock among City peers at the hire of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer private equity veteran David Higgins (pictured) has been, well, shocking. ‘Outrageous’, ‘obscene’ and ‘mildly appalling’ are among the reactions from peers. One hopeful partner at a US firm notes: ‘The clients won’t be impressed with that number splashed all over the news.’

But such sentiments are a naive reading of how the industry is evolving. Yes, if you think of a lateral as wrangling an immediate book of business, such a package suggests needing to preside over $30m within three years to be called a success on a conventional yardstick. That would certainly be a stretch – though not impossible given what some of the strongest City laterals have managed – but that is not the benchmark. Kirkland & Ellis has been stuffed with leveraged finance talent for years while lacking an unquestioned corporate A-lister. The hyper-productive Matthew Elliott delivered that when he joined from Linklaters in 2016, but his practice has a very precise real estate slant. Continue reading “A shock to the system as Freshfields heavyweight departs”