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The head of Osborne Clarke's new Silicon Valley office has more than one thing in common with the firm's managing partner Leslie Perrin. Like him, Angus Finnegan was rejected by the firm when he applied for a training contract and, again like Perrin, he went back for more and has since rocketed to the top. Finnegan only joined the firm in 1998 after four years in-house at British Telecommunications (BT). He made partner last year and six months later was jetted out to launch the firm's most ambitious project yet: he became the first lawyer to launch a pan-European law firm's outpost in Silicon Valley.
Head of IT and telecoms Simon Rendell says it was easy to see that Finnegan was the right man for the job. "It's much more interesting for Osborne Clarke to have a young person who will be building longstanding relationships from a young age," he says. "He's got a huge amount of energy and you do need somebody young to keep up out there.
"We had quite a lot of people putting their hands up for the job. Let's put it this way, it was easy to count the hands that were down. In the first instance, we had to whittle it down to someone with technology experience and commercial experience, which is exceptionally important in Silicon Valley. We were then looking for somebody who can handle themselves and go out and network very readily, and not everybody has that kind of skill while being quite as natural as Angus is."
It was Rendell who recruited Finnegan in 1998 after working opposite him on a deal. Rendell was representing VeriSign, with Finnegan across the table representing BT. Rendell says: "I got Angus because he was such a pain in the side on the other side of that deal. For such a young lawyer to be such a pain in my side, I decided I never wanted to be across the table from him again."
Rendell and partner Andrew Saul boast some impressive clients that they were loth to let go by upping sticks and heading for California. Finnegan will take over relationships with, among others, Yahoo!, VeriSign and 3i. But you can tell when you meet Finnegan that he was more than ready for the challenge - all decked out in his Californian casuals and enthusing about joining the gym and braving the windsurfing in shark-infested waters.
Finnegan says: "I've worked for a lot of North American technology and telecoms companies, so it was an easy transition for me to make. We now have the largest technology practice in the UK, with 40 commercial lawyers that work solely in the technology and telecoms sector.
"A large part of our practice out here is to support those companies. I, in particular, have done a lot of work for some of our key clients. We've opened the office to meet client demand for UK and European legal advice in California. It's essentially a natural extension of our European technology practice, a large part of which involves assisting US companies on UK activities. By being on the ground in California, we're better able to serve those."
Finnegan's experience ranges from acting for BT on the agreement with VeriSign to establish a UK digital certification authority, to negotiating on behalf of Yahoo! on a marketing agreement with BT, and negotiating a global distribution deal on behalf of Infobank with an e-commerce service provider.
One Californian client who uses the firm in the UK says that the move into Silicon Valley makes a lot of sense. "Their initiative to open here is a very smart move, especially as more and more US companies need to work more efficiently in Europe," she says. "It's a very focused way to service a client - to have locally-qualified people here in their time-frame delivering advice relevant to their market."
Rendell says the firm boasts more than 200 clients with presences both in the UK and in California, including Yahoo!, VeriSign, Newport Corporation, 3i and QLogic. And Finnegan has already picked up a host of new clients through local contacts. One of the biggest wins is work for Tumbleweed, a secure email systems company based in Silicon Valley. The firm has been appointed as adviser on all of Tumbleweed's European issues for its rollout in the UK.
Another new client is Arcot Systems, a secure digital identities company, for which four of the European offices have been called upon.
Finnegan says: "We've picked up a major US telecoms company with significant European networks which we'll be advising on European broadband deals and network acquisition and management. That came in really from our involvement with another transaction where we weren't acting for them."
The firm is aiming to capitalise on relationships with Californian law firms, including Fenwick & West, Tomlinson Zisko Morosoli & Maser and Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. These relationships have been built up over the last few years, and it was a relationship with just such a Valley firm that originally brought in UK work for Yahoo! before it opened in London in 1996. Now Osborne Clarke is the company's main law firm in the UK.
Richard Horning at Tomlinson Zisko in Silicon Valley says: "It's a very interesting strategy. To my knowledge, there is no English law firm in Silicon Valley that has come and established an office to help outbound Californian companies with their European legal issues and to help the inbound companies get established over here."
It was Tomlinson Zisko that originally introduced VeriSign to Osborne Clarke. Horning says: "In the case of VeriSign, given the work that they've done in the telecoms and internet areas, they were well situated to step right in. They're hands-on kind of lawyers, much in the Silicon Valley mould rather than in the image of an old and more traditional relationship, where clients come and sit in lawyers' offices to receive advice. They're much more in the American Silicon Valley tradition - getting in there, sitting in on plannings and meetings and getting deals done."
Another client says of the firm: "They're very internet-savvy and very responsive, and they're familiar with Californian clients and thus familiar with how it all works."
The office has opened under the branding of Osborne Westphalen, the name of Osborne Clarke's European alliance. It is the first office to launch under the new logo.
Finnegan says: "I think what's really pushing the buttons over here is our ability to provide a European-wide function. That's working very well. With [leasing company] GATX for instance, we've recently completed nine separate transactions in different European jurisdictions, with advice being coordinated through London and work being done in Silicon Valley and Europe.
"We're concentrating on the European market. The classic example is that yesterday I spent pretty much the entire day advising a semi-conductor manufacturer in Orange County on their distribution contracts. They were having a work group on European distribution contracts, and being in the same time zone meant we were able to advise straight away. If we were in Europe we would have taken an entire day to talk."
Managing partner Leslie Perrin says: "We felt that the proposition for California was stronger as a European-wide proposition. There's never been a gateway to European law available in the States, let alone in California, and we thought that would be a great offering, which it has been."
Finnegan will be joined in M
arch by the founder of both the London and Thames Valley offices, senior corporate partner Richard Smerdon, who will stay in the office for six months. A corporate assistant from London will be sent out along with others from European offices so that there will be eight lawyers on the ground by the summer.
The firm is moving into new premises on Silicon Valley's Page Mill Road, the home of law firm giants Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Cooley Godward, to name but two.
Perhaps by then Finnegan will have gotten the hang of his big US hire car and plucked up the courage to swim in San Francisco Bay. He might even make it up to the mountains to ski for the weekend, which he says he has not managed yet because of his workload.
"I couldn't go skiing because of work," he says, "but it's really something you can do in a weekend. I'm out here until the end of the year now, but it'll be difficult for me to go back."
And who can blame him? Working with the world's hottest clients and living in San Francisco must make him the envy of every City lawyer. n