Bar talk

During Lovells' march up the long greasy pole, its litigators have often talked about its so-called 'international success'.
Now, with half the firm's lawyers based outside London, Lovells is embarking on a period of consolidation, restructuring enlarged departments and revisiting its management structures. It is hoped this will enhance the firm's clout and establish it as a truly international firm. The exact nature of any restructuring will be known after the firm's next partnership conference in March.
But where does its litigation practice, so long the pièce de résistance, fit in after such an acquisitive 2001? Clearly it has international strengths: 140 litigation partners across the firm's 26 worldwide offices. But its size exactly matches the number in its corporate and finance departments, which perhaps means that litigation is no longer the sole jewel in Lovells' crown.
At least litigation hasn't been sidelined in the firm's latest drive for international expansion. Recent work reflects the increasingly international reach of the department, with instructions from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development against a loan defaulter, acting for Nortel against Ionica, and BCCI against Bank of America to name a few.
In the US alone Lovells boasts 10 litigation partners working out of the firm's three offices in Chicago, New York and Washington. Leaving aside Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells' 44 US litigation partners, Lovells' US litigation capability dwarfs that of its UK rivals trying to make headway in the US. Lovells' head of litigation Patrick Sharrington and his predecessor Russell Sleigh both claim to be reaping the rewards of a growing US profile. Certainly litigation arising out of 11 September is proving very lucrative for lawyers on both sides of the pond.
Globally, the practice appears to be flourishing with Lovells' litigators currently involved in 100 or so jurisdictions. In Europe, litigation has benefited from the firm's mergers last year with Siméon & Associés in France and Dutch firm Ekelmans Den Hollander, and in early 2000 with German outfit Boesebeck Droste. And cross-border work has developed as the firm is able to offer local law advice in a number of jurisdictions. Couple the mergers with Lovells' particular litigation strength in Eastern Europe, Germany, Russia and the Far East, and the firm is in a position to consolidate on its reputation for placing a large number of litigators on the job at short notice.
International growth – which also has seen a specialist litigation group set up in Warsaw including six former CMS partners, in addition to partner hires in 2001 from Trenité van Doorne, Dubarry Le Douarin Veil, and Nauta Dutilh – has been matched by across-the-board advances at home.
The firm is flooded with big litigation, including Barings, Railtrack (where the firm displaced A&O as adviser to the Shareholders Action Group), BCCI (for BCCI depositors Three Rivers District Council and also for Bank of America) and Prince Jefri. In April, the Lords will hear the next stage in the 10-year-old Sphere Drake v Orion litigation. Such large instructions are one-offs or from longstanding clients. The rest arise out of clients of Lovells' corporate department. But the litigation practice does not rely purely on the mega-instruction or international work. Besides many others it threw up cases on product liability (including the MMR matter), media (for MGN), pensions (against BT), patents, tax (acting for Barclays against Customs & Excise), and employment (for Sony).
In the current climate of FSA empowerment, economic downturn and fraud, many Lovells litigators are up to their eyeballs in things such as confidential inquiries, regulatory interventions and portfolio problems.
Litigation continues to be a major driver in the development of the firm, and the dreams of those in the department keen on travelling have begun to be realised. With so much going on it is worth holding our breath for what comes out of the firm's management shake-up. For sheer breadth and depth of international coverage, Lovells still fails to match up to the might of Clifford Chance, but what can Sharrington and co do to challenge that hegemony in 2002?
brendan.malkin@thelawyer.com