International eye: France

The rise and fall of the independent French firm

A lot of French lawyers are sending the traditional New Year’s greetings cards from new firms this January. But there will be no card coming from Rambaud Martel. The respected independent practice is no more, following raids by no fewer than six firms on its partnership.

The biggest group of Rambaud Martel partners has gone to Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, in a move trumpeted by the US firm as a “merger”. A total of 12 partners, including name partner Jean-Pierre Martel, joined Orrick on 1 January. The firm is now operating from Rambaud Martel’s offices close to the green spaces of the Bois de Boulogne.

Orrick will be hoping to capitalise on Martel’s reputation in a market where contacts still count. But the firm will be fighting with the rest of Rambaud Martel’s partners who have split up for pastures new. Proskauer Rose, Salans and Reed Smith have or are taking six, five and four partners respectively. Another two partners, Luc Saucier and Anne Le Bault de la Morinière, have found homes at Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker and employment boutique Flichy & Associés respectively.

Rambaud Martel was hardly a struggling firm. It came in at sixth place in last year’s M&A league tables. Its problems were all about succession. Martel told The Lawyer in December that there was no obvious choice to follow him in the role of senior partner, and he saw the Orrick merger as ensuring a future for the firm and its younger partners. Most of those partners who have followed Martel to Orrick are in the 10 to 20-year-qualified bracket – hardly straight out of law school.

The Reed Smith four, including Matthieu Rambaud, son of co-founder Jean-François Rambaud, are younger and bring with them a team of fresh-faced associates. The office is just two months’ old, but this month it announced its involvement in a chunky €430m (£294.8m) hospital acquisition – a good start.

While Rambaud Martel was disintegrating, another of the French elite was expanding. In a move that astonished the market and caused pages of speculation in the French legal press, Slaughter and May announced that it was ending its 30-year presence in Paris and ceding its office to best friend Bredin Prat.

Although some observers have questioned whether the finance-heavy practice of Slaughters Paris will fit in Bredin Prat’s corporate powerhouse, the move ought to help the French independent to maintain and build its stellar reputation in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Franco-US mergers go on despite the bad blood

France has not exactly been in the US’s good books of late, but the political climate has not stopped US law firms from investing in Paris. Paul Hastings, Proskauer Rose and Reed Smith have been some of the most high-profile, thanks to the Rambaud Martel fallout, but other firms have also been busily hiring away.

Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson set out its stall in a confident manner in November when it launched an association with bankruptcy litigation boutique Lantourne. Managing partner Eric Cafritz said the plan was to go head-to-head with the Paris elite by offering a full-service capability, including litigation.

Cafritz’s plan is a bold one. Few Anglo-Saxon firms have succeeded in practice areas outside corporate and finance in Paris, despite the overwhelming majority of lawyers hailing from France. But with astute expansion and appointments such as that of David Chijner from Weil Gotshal & Manges, Cafritz could succeed where others have stumbled.

Chijner’s departure was a negative point to a good year-end for Weil. The firm has been riding high ever since the hire of Linklaters private equity star David Aknin in 2004, and it made two more strategic hires in December. Restructuring partner Jean-Dominique Daudier de Cassini joined the firm from US rival Willkie Farr & Gallagher, closely followed by Allen & Overy finance star Jonathan Nabarro. Nabarro’s appointment had Paris buzzing, and Weil managing partner Claude Serra was justifiably pleased with the coup.

Weil now has an office full of some of the best-known partners in Paris, and Serra has made few mistakes in its gradual expansion. Other US firms looking to get into Paris, or to grow an existing practice, would do well to look at his example.

US firms thrive in Paris as France privatises

The recent surge in corporate activity has extended across the Channel, with far more deals during 2005 than in 2004. The UK’s magic circle jostled for top position in France, with Linklaters eventually taking top spot on Mergermarket’s league tables over Clifford Chance. Despite the loss of rainmaker David Aknin in 2004, Linklaters has continued to thrive in Paris under the leadership of Thierry Vassogne and was the only UK firm to snag a role on the privatisations of Gaz de France (GDF) and Electricité de France (EDF).

Clifford Chance, meanwhile, picked up the position of adviser to Macquarie in the December partial privatisation of the French motorway system. But the firm is less dominant in France than it is in other European jurisdictions, and appeared in second place on the league tables.

Gide Loyrette Nouel appears to be developing a stranglehold on big-ticket work for the French government, having bagged the state adviser role for both the EDF and GDF IPOs, as well as the December privatisation of the motorways. The deals helped push Gide to third place in the 2005 league tables, working on 28 transactions worth a total of €61.2bn (£41.95bn).

Weil, Sullivan & Cromwell and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton maintained their positions as the pre-eminent US firms in Paris. Cleary and Sullivan joined Gide on EDF and GDF. Both firms have profited in recent years from their long presences in France and look set to continue to do so.

While the energy privatisations were dominated by US firms, the work was shared out more broadly on the motorway deals. Rambaud Martel made a valedictory appearance acting for Vinci, one of the investors. Bredin Prat and Darrois Villey Maillot Brochier completed the line-up of independent French firms bagging roles. A&O and Clifford Chance flew the flag for the UK, while Willkie Farr & Gallagher and Sullivan & Cromwell were the US representatives.

As France continues to privatise, there ought to be more of this type of work coming law firms’ way over the next year.

A very parochial bar

Despite the best intentions of the international firms, the Paris Bar Council is looking less Anglo-Saxon this year after Slaughters partner Antoine-Audoin Maggiar lost his bid for a seat. There are now just three representatives of UK and US firms sitting on the 42-seat council – Willkie Farr’s Dominique Mondoloni, Cleary partner Jean-Michel Tron and Clifford Chance’s Claude Lazarus. Gide partners Jean-Marie Burguburu and Olivier Cousi, as well as Pierre Lévêque of independent corporate firm Lefèvre Pelletier & Associés, make up the roster of business law partners.

The results mean that the council is dominated as much as ever by representatives of small, private client practices – making it not dissimilar to England’s own Law Society Council. It seems the profession attracts a certain sort of political animal, no matter where they are based.

International roundup

Coming up:

Asia: 30 Jan
Europe: 6 Feb
US: 13 Feb
Europe: 20 Feb