Forget Dewey – in Wall Street star power is greater than ever

Forget Dewey – in Wall Street star power is greater than ever

I flew into Manhattan to The New Yorker chronicling the death of Big Law with a pacey dissection of the fall of Dewey & LeBoeuf. Three days later I flew out to The New York Times covering the fee bonanza for Wall Street lawyers generated by J.P. Morgan’s regulatory nightmare.

There you have it – Manhattan’s legal market remains as contradictory and seductive as ever. Eighteen months since Dewey collapsed, it’s not apparent that the world’s largest legal failure has had much impact at all. Certainly, there has been no discernible hard look in the mirror or serious questioning of the elevation of the star system that contributed – combined with a score of other failings – to Dewey’s final chapter.

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Comment: ‘2006 and all that – an oh-so-familiar mess at Linklaters

Comment: ‘2006 and all that – an oh-so-familiar mess at Linklaters

The most hackneyed cliché of the pundit is history repeating itself, a claim that rarely holds up upon closer examination. But with the recent departure of Linklaters’ private equity co-heads Ian Bagshaw and Richard Youle for White & Case, well, sometimes you just can’t escape the past.

Personality clashes, a mid-market practice not gelling with Linklaters’ M&A business, finance supposedly not supporting sponsor clients, prolonged rumours over exit talks, and, finally, a dramatic exit to a big spending US rival; yes, it’s 2006 all over again when Graham White and Raymond McKeeve quit for Kirkland & Ellis.

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Almost meeting minds – a select band of CIOs and MPs plot a big, big breakthrough

Almost meeting minds – a select band of CIOs and MPs plot a big, big breakthrough

During the original dot-com boom, there was a brief period – oh so brief – when legal technologists and managing partners were almost on the same page. With both camps dreaming of dramatic use of IT projects to revolutionise the legal business – the era of Blue Flag – there were big sums signed off, in many cases with poor results when it came to the hard grind of implementation. Dot-com boom turned to bust and IT professionals were once again from Venus and fee-earners from Mars.

Aside from Linklaters’ high-stakes investment in a platform from SAP during the 2000s, technology has shifted in recent years towards pragmatism and smaller initiatives. Mirroring the wider shift towards flexible tech, chief information officers (CIOs) are increasingly focusing on off-the-shelf tools that can be rapidly adapted at competitive costs. Continue reading “Almost meeting minds – a select band of CIOs and MPs plot a big, big breakthrough”

The Last Word: India

The Last Word: India

With a slowing economy and the political landscape unsettled, we ask leading international partners with noted Indian practices for their prognosis on the country and whether tougher times will shake up the local legal market

Policy paralysis

‘It is the understatement of the year to say that India has been having problems.

At the beginning of the year there was policy paralysis; there were taxation problems which caused a negative reaction and the budget wasn’t well received. The growth rate is slowing down and inflation Continue reading “The Last Word: India”

The air of unreality – can the big deal deliver for Ashurst?

The air of unreality – can the big deal deliver for Ashurst?

‘Historically, what killed Ashurst’s mergers has been apathy. Latham, Fried Frank, Clifford Chance – people were apathetic.’ So recalls one former veteran of the City firm.

As Legal Business goes to press Ashurst is finally about to vote on a transformative merger with its Australian partner. But even two years since the firm agreed a formal alliance with big six Australian outfit Blake Dawson, the idea of Ashurst going through with the tie-up still seems odd, unreal even, though this timeframe was always set out and the Australian practice immediately took the name of its City suitor.
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If the mid-tier’s days are numbered why do they keep doing so well?

If the mid-tier’s days are numbered why do they keep doing so well?

We’ve had five years of unforgiving conditions for law firms, everyone agrees. And in many respects that squeeze has had predictable results on the upper echelons and lower half of the LB100. But this year it’s the mid-tier which has had the most interesting 12 months. This group should by rights and conventional wisdom be on its knees, yet judged on 2012/13 results they aren’t. Looking at organic growth, plenty of firms in the 26-50 range out-shone larger rivals and many of the stand-out performances this year – among them Mishcon de Reya, Holman Fenwick Willan, Macfarlanes and RPC – hail from this segment. Neither is this a one-year deal – there are plenty of firms in this weight class that have maintained a robust five-year growth track, powered by strong niches in areas like private client, TMT and insurance and a general affinity for contentious work.

It is a reminder that there is nothing inherently wrong with a domestic or mid-market focus. It is just one model with its own strengths and weaknesses. Executed with a genuine feel for those strengths it delivers not just well but sometimes spectacularly.

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The age of turbulence has only just begun for the UK’s top 100 firms

The age of turbulence has only just begun for the UK’s top 100 firms

Respectable, yes, but 2012/13 was a tough year, even by the post-Lehman standards law firm leaders have become accustomed to. While a frantic run of consolidation and international expansion pushed revenue up 8% to £19.1bn, like-for-like growth was far more subdued.

On all objective measures of productivity and profitability, there were further slides, even before accounting for inflation. Back-of-the envelope calculations indicate that the UK’s top 100 law firms are about 25-30% off their boom-time highs in real terms underlying profitability.

In trying to respond to that pressure there has been a genuine shift in gravity among the UK’s top 25 over the last half decade, with the group reborn in truly globalised form. When people used to talk about law being global, until recently they really meant six or so firms. Now it’s 20-plus. With SJ Berwin to join King & Wood Mallesons, and Ashurst this autumn to vote on full integration with its Australian partner, this group is to a considerable extent operating in a different space to the rest of the LB100. Average revenue in this group is just short of £600m, against £98m in the second quartile, while underlying profitability is nearly double that of the next 25. Continue reading “The age of turbulence has only just begun for the UK’s top 100 firms”

The lingering enigma of BLP’s bad year

The lingering enigma of BLP’s bad year

Success is a mysterious beast. Hard to define, built up over years and often the result of a formula even its creators struggle to understand. But failure, well, that’s simple. When a law firm runs into difficulties you can point to bickering partners, problem offices, a weak client-base or an unworkable strategy. Whatever it is, there’s usually a clear narrative to explain the situation.

As such, the current rough patch at Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) is striking less in itself than because the firm seems surprised by – and unable to entirely explain – the situation. When BLP announced in May that it was consulting on deep redundancies, by many accounts even a number of senior partners at the firm were caught unawares. Continue reading “The lingering enigma of BLP’s bad year”

Dissent: Why the in-house triumph over law firms may prove short-lived

Dissent: Why the in-house triumph over law firms may prove short-lived

Scott Gibson and Kristi Edwards argue that GCs have secured a short-term advantage over their external advisers at the risk of undermining their own position

In the decade prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, an excess of work masked the corrosive effect to law firms from competition with increasingly sophisticated and growing in-house legal departments (C&I teams). Post-Lehman, the economic downturn has exposed significant structural challenges to overstaffed law firms, which have been ruthlessly exploited by C&I to decisively shift the balance of power in favour of clients.

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Hogan Lovells was right to get hitched. It needs to remember that.

Hogan Lovells was right to get hitched. It needs to remember that.

I’m not a big fan of comparing law firm mergers to marriages. All those torturous metaphors and incongruous imagery. But in assessing the three-year old union between Lovells and Hogan & Hartson, it’s hard to escape the nuptial motif. The deal was forged amid high expectations and a simple analysis: both firms were better off together as neither looked compellingly positioned for an emerging elite of global law. Putting together a transatlantic merger of equals with two large firms that ranked just below the top tier in their respective markets made sense and was arguably a first for the profession.

But, as we address this month, the problem with raising expectations is that you’ve then got to meet them. And on that yardstick the firm has faltered. Three years in Hogan Lovells is still struggling for growth, the gap between its profitability and other global 20 peers remains too wide and the break-through in transactional work is elusive.

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