California scheming

Gibson Dunn sees itself as more than just a West Coast US firm. But it must convince everyone else of its global aspirations

Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

has an image problem. Which is tough when you’re from California. Despite years of investment, developing international client coverage, notably from New York, Gibson Dunn is arguably yet to break free of its West Coast roots.

The firm’s latest attempt was announced this month, when it revealed that it would be opening in Dubai before the end of the year.

I went to see Gibson Dunn’s New York co-chair Steve Shoemate and asked him about Dubai. His response was to claim that the launch fitted with Gibson’s position as a “global law firm”.

Now call me a pedant, but isn’t it stretching it a bit to call Gibson Dunn a global firm when 793 of its 884 lawyers (as of 30 September this year) are based in the US? And when it has no office in Asia? In fact, its only international offices are in the tried-and-tested locales of London, Brussels, Paris and Munich, after the firm dramatically wound back its international operations in the late 1990s, pulling out of China and Riyadh.

But despite such obvious contradictions, Shoemate stands firm. He argues that Gibson Dunn has been working globally, and particularly in Dubai, for years, albeit without a presence there. Recently, however, he says the “momentum” in the region had led it to rethink its strategy regarding overseas offices.

“We’ve been active in Dubai for years without having to hang the shingle,” argues Shoemate. “People got on planes. We’ve been able to service clients in jurisdictions where we don’t have an office, such as Moscow. But if there’s sufficient momentum, it makes sense to have a more permanent presence.”

The Dubai move is of itself interesting in the context of Gibson Dunn’s international aspirations. But the launch also points to a wider question: that of the identity, culture and success of the firm itself. It raises the question of whether Gibson Dunn is now ready to re-embrace international expansion in a meaningful sense.

Targeting Dubai

Gibson Dunn managing partner Ken Doran is delighted about the firm’s move to solidify its ties with one of its longest-standing overseas markets.

“It increasingly made sense for us to be in Dubai to help us grow our market share,” he says. “We have been fortunate in that we’ve continued to capture work out of the region, particularly for private equity clients across a range of sectors, and that will continue. But having a foot in the door will help.”

But as Doran rightly points out, this is an about-turn for the firm that shut down its last Middle Eastern office, in Riyadh, in 1998.

As first reported on www.thelawyer. com (3 October), Gibson Dunn will open its office in the Dubai International Finance Centre later this year. The firm’s longstanding relationship with Investcorp, which was instrumental in the opening of its London office, was also one of the key drivers behind its move to Dubai.

Washington DC partner Peter Baumbusch will relocate to Dubai to oversee the operation, while London partners Paul Harter and Tony Bonanno are also expected to spend time out in Dubai.

Gibson Dunn’s involvement in Borse Dubai’s acquisition of a 20 per cent share in the Nasdaq Stock Market earlier this year was evidence of the kind of momentum Shoemate is referring to.

It was a deal that justified opening the office, although the plans had been laid long before. Gibson Dunn is the kind of ultra-conservative firm that likes to take its time.

“Gibson Dunn is a very thoughtful firm,” says Jon Lindsey, New York managing partner of recruitment consultant Major Lindsey & Africa. “It has had a strong Middle East practice for a long time but it has clearly only concluded recently that it had the right mix of client demand in the region to justify opening a new office there. It’s not done lightly.”

Changing perceptions

But Dubai is not the only thing Gibson Dunn’s senior partners are thought to be taking a hard look at. Like it or not, the firm is still seen as a California-based operation both externally and, according to sources, internally. The latter fact is believed to be creating significant tension within the firm, where just less than half its US lawyers are still based in California.

“The firm’s offices outside California continued to be viewed as satellites rather than independent revenue-generators,” a source claims.

While according to Bruce MacEwen, the lawyer behind the well-known legal blog ‘Adam Smith, Esq’: “Gibson Dunn is still not perceived as a serious M&A player in New York, despite the years they’ve invested in building a presence here.”

Doran dismisses these allegations as either out of date or plain inaccurate. He describes the firm’s Californian roots as “historical fact and [a] source of pride”, but not a source of tension in any respect.

“Gibson Dunn is an international firm, widely recognised for its outstanding litigation and transactional practices,” adds Doran.

“While we started in California, growth in our offices on the East Coast and in Europe has outpaced the firm as a whole. All of our offices are strong contributors to the firm.”

Gibson Dunn is clearly in an expansionist mood and its soon-to-be-launched outpost in Dubai has the track record to be a success. But a leading ‘global’ firm? The jury’s still out.