Clydes sails into uncharted waters with expansion across the Atlantic

Clyde & Co

is making a play for the US litigation market with the hire of four partners from US firm Condon & Forsyth and with new offices in New York and Los Angeles (LA).

London Partners Diane Westwood Wilson, Christopher Carlsen and Andrew Harakas joined Clydes last week to set up in the New York office, while partner Kevin Sutherland is based in Los Angeles, as first revealed on www.thelawyer. com (27 June).

Both offices have small teams of associates to support the partners, with more on the way.

Clydes chief executive Peter Hasson says the firm had been examining the US market for around 18 months with a view to establishing offices there. The launch finally fills a gap in Clydes’ international strategy, which has seen the firm develop in Asia and the Middle East in particular.

“We’ve been trying to find the right combination of people to provide the strategy to make sure we’ve got the foundation from which to build,” Hasson said.

Although the firm was looking at the US in early 2005, the real opportunity for Clydes came when it merged with aviation boutique Beaumont & Son in June 2005. Until that point, Clydes had not had much aviation business, although the two firms shared several large insurance clients.

The Condon team specialises in aviation work and has previously acted for large carriers and insurers in a range of disputes. The LA office is key to picking up work from Asia-Pacific carriers based out of California.

The partners’ experience extends into product liability and general insurance litigation. Hasson says the overlap between the new US practice and Clydes’ core expertise is considerable, but
admitted that the launch would not have been possible pre-Beaumonts.

Hasson says Clydes planned to grow the new offices, but had no particular target size.

“In typical Clyde & Co fashion, we’ll take it steady as it goes,” he says. “In the research we’ve been doing, it was clear that you’ve got to be very careful where you position yourself in the US market. If you get in at the wrong level it’s very difficult to trade up.”

Hasson sees potential for the US offices to attract more commercial litigators, as well as experts in insurance and marine law. As in London, insurance will be the key for Clydes in the US.

The firm will be taking advantage of a market where UK-based insurers spend three times as much on legal fees in the US than they do in London, although the London insurance community remains the hub of global insurance activity.

The launch follows a year of international expansion at Clydes. Shortly after completing the Beaumonts merger, the firm announced that it was launching in Moscow, backing up its existing association in St Petersburg.

That was not the end of the expansion. In January this year Clydes bulked up again by launching in Shanghai with its first mainland China office. In March, it boosted numbers in Dubai. Hasson says the firm’s Middle East turnover has risen by 55 per cent in the past year and Clydes now has over 100 people based in the region.

He notes the speed of recent expansion is due to seeing opportunities and taking them, although in an ideal world the firm would grow at a steadier pace. However, it has stuck to its core practice area strategy and is delivering profit increases year-on-year.

The US launch does mean a departure from the way Clydes and its fellow insurance and maritime firms have always worked across the Atlantic. Because legislation varies so much from state to state, each firm has a network of specialists across the continent – a relationship firm in each state or, in bigger centres, several in a city.

Clydes’ UK rival, Ince & Co partner David Steward, comments: “One of the big things in our strategy is that we do have this very close working relationship with overseas law firms around the world, which we’ve fostered for decades.”

Steward says that Ince keeps its international operations under regular review and that the firm had no current plans to open in the US.

However, the insurance and shipping firms have traditionally played off each other in terms of overseas presence. Ince opened its Dubai office this year, chasing Clydes and Holman Fenwick. All three firms now have offices in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong as well as Piraeus and Dubai.

In Europe, all three are in the Greek shipping capital of Piraeus. In France, Ince has offices in Paris and Le Havre, Holman Fenwick can be found in Rouen and Nantes and Clydes is in Nantes and Paris.

The US openings see Clydes move away from its peers and into new, uncharted waters. If it succeeds, it may well be the signal for a new era in the way that the staid and traditional insurance legal market works.

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