I used to believe the UK legal profession was more imaginative than it got credit for – now I find with an increasingly jaded eye what fresh thinking there is has become stretched ludicrously thin. The vast majority of technology and new models are deployed to make the existing law firm a little more efficient to defensively preserve partner profits.
Within days of this issue hitting desks, it will be ten years since Lehman Brothers’ collapse marked what swiftly became the great financial crisis. That event was only the clearest symptom of a disease that had been infecting the banking system for more than a year before Lehman filed for bankruptcy on 15 September 2008.
Yet the process unquestionably signalled changes that have reverberated through economies, politics, business and, yes, the legal profession ever since. By the summer of 2009 the UK profession had for the first time engaged in industrial-scale job cuts, axing more than 5,000 roles at top 100 UK firms alone. Through the lens of the LB100, the profession starkly divides into performance patterns pre and post-Lehman. During the long boom, London’s elite was utterly untouchable. Within the Circle they could falter and scrap for fleeting inter-club advantage. But as far as the rest of the industry was concerned, they were in a world of their own. The initial advances of major US law firms had by the mid-2000s been comprehensively repelled – what chance did mid-tier rivals have? Continue reading “A decade since Lehman the profession still mired in the New Normal”
In the summer of 2017 the world’s top law firms were looking at their next financial year with scant optimism given a turbulent geopolitical backdrop and uncertain economic headwinds. As it turned out, driven by a robust global economy, bullish investors and a re-born enthusiasm for cross-border transactions, the 2017/18 season proved kinder than forecast, equating to one of the stronger years seen by the Global 100 since the banking crisis recast the industry.
Assisted by consolidation, the 100 drove their collective top line up $6bn to reach $104.4bn. US-centric firms heavy on marquee transactions and private capital made the best showing – it was a relatively subdued 12 months in the vast US disputes market, hitting firms overly exposed to it. Continue reading “A new Global 100 elite emerges as the old ones decline”
It would take a generous observer of Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) to claim the once sure-footed outfit had managed anything better than an indifferent run in the years preceding its union with Bryan Cave. Having dazzled through the 2000s – a period in which the firm seemed to have single-handedly revived the unfashionable notion of a City mid-tier – the last five years have been a stark contrast. Volatile financial performance, a disastrous run of partner recruitment and tension over its property-heavy direction – all in, it was unclear where the firm was going.
As such, confirmation earlier this year that BLP was uniting with a solid US operator, but one whose brand had limited potency in Europe, did not quicken the pulse. Continue reading “BCLP: A slightly better sales pitch than expected”
Recently a surprisingly popular column in Legal Business took a jaded view of the state of leadership in major law firms. The nub of our argument was that the law firm c-suite had descended into technocratic managerialism over genuine leadership, leaving once bold institutions to put off crucial decisions.
That piece drew on years of hanging around with managing and senior partners, which at times means feeling more like a leadership therapist/their mother than a reporter. But in the spirit of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness, here are my tips to successful law firm leadership. And ignore the flip tone because I mean it all. Continue reading “16 easy steps to making you a great managing partner”
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.
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”
‘Lockstep in its current form has to go. It’s just not working.’
Legal Business, June 2015
‘The current incarnation of lockstep is an overly restrictive model that was a child of its time…. The failure to substantively adapt the model… has increasingly threatened to shatter a system that still delivers considerable benefits.’
Legal Business, October 2013
If nothing else, it is safe to say Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP)’s not-very-convincing claim that management was not dead set on a US merger was stretching it. Because recent news that the firm is debating a union with Bryan Cave screams: ‘We really want a US merger!’
The talks come after last year having gone through a bruising but short courtship with the far larger Greenberg Traurig, the thrusting Miami shop which had a culture clash with BLP that could not have been more obvious if it had been heralded by fireworks. Continue reading “BLP’s US merger bid – a certain loss of confidence”
The headline of the last lengthy piece Legal Business carried on Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer said it all: The Last Champions. While there is no doubt that the Magic Circle has faced huge challenges asserting itself since the banking crisis, for many Freshfields was the member of the club with the best prospect of securing its place in the global elite.
But the City giant will be faring much worse on the profession’s saloon bar test if it keeps generating headlines like this summer, notably the news in July that co-managing partner Chris Pugh was stepping down less than halfway through his term. This surprise announcement came in the same month as financial results showed Freshfields being comprehensively outclassed by its City peers. Freshfields’ revenues have grown by just 17% in five years and the firm has been a fitful performer for nearly a decade now. While the metrics look better in profitability and revenue-per-lawyer terms, Freshfields has certainly not outpaced London rivals even on its core targets. Continue reading “What ails Freshfields? Time is running out for ‘The Last Champions’”