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Tom Joyce, a partner at Shearman & Sterling for 24 years and an ex-managing partner of its London office, joins the firm next month to set up a US securities law team.
Joyce said he was approached by Freshfields senior partner Anthony Salz.
He described the offer as "very attractive" and a "terrific opportunity".
He added: "I have been interested in the dual capability of American and English lawyers practising together for some years. This was a chance to see if I could make it work."
Joyce said Shearman & Sterling did not have any British lawyers, although "not for the want of trying".
It had looked but was unable to find candidates of the quality it needed, he said.
His new role would offer him the opportunity to build a team in Europe and Asia and would be "more global and focused" than his role at Shearman & Sterling, which tended to focus on Europe from the firm's London office.
He said the US securities team would initially hire five or six lawyers and would work in tandem with UK solicitors.
The move took Shearman & Sterling by surprise, said managing partner Lee Kuntz. He said Joyce had told them more than a week ago that "he had made a commitment. For various reasons he thought Freshfields provided a challenge for him. We said 'we hear you'."
Kuntz said the firm "had made arrangements for the transition of all the clients he's been working with". But he acknowledged that clients ultimately would make their minds up about which firm to use.