FFW plays fast and loose in US

When is an alliance not an alliance? When it’s led by Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW).

Partners from the firm, along with those from the European Legal Alliance (ELA) it heads, will be jetting in to New York this month to beauty parade US firms. FFW partners have been doing this every other month for the past three years, building relationships and garnering referrals.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing. But there seems to be just the slightest hint of paranoia about this latest trip. The New York jaunt is aimed at hunting down US technology and IP-focused firms with solid corporate practices to establish new relationships. As one member of the ELA’s executive committee put it: “Not really a merger, but like the alliance is not a merger – a compromise between a merger and a network.” Huh?
Mark Abell, head of the ELA committee, went to great pains last week to assure The Lawyer that neither FFW nor the ELA were about to strike a US merger deal. Or even formally add a US member to the alliance. They probably aren’t even going to have coffee with anyone, just in case someone gets the wrong idea.

Now we at The Lawyer pride ourselves on our ability to read between the lines and decipher coded messages from cagey lawyers. But there was nothing particularly cryptic about one FFW partner’s response to the question of whether the firm was in the US hunting for a merger: “You’re pulling my leg. We’ve absolutely no desire to merge with a US firm. It would be madness. To make a formal alliance with a US firm would damage us commercially.”

This didn’t appear to bother arch rival Olswang, which last year struck an exclusive deal with Greenberg Traurig. Until that point it had been in a similar position to FFW – a UK firm servicing domestic clients with occasional needs out west.

The crunch for Olswang was when it became convinced that a single US alliance was far more effective than the scattergun approach. Now its mantra is that, in the US, out of sight really is out of mind. So be permanently visible.

What exactly is FFW scared of? It takes a lot of effort to manage lots of relationships – with diminishing returns. Still, at least the move should keep FFW’s European members happy. Good shopping in New York.

matt.byrne@thelawyer.com