2011 Round-up – US: Altered States

Asia and Houston were big blips on the radars of the major US players during 2011, although Howrey disappeared without trace

The demise of litigation heavyweight Howrey dominated the headlines in the early part of 2011. For market watchers familiar with the end of other US firms in recent years, notably Heller Ehrmann, it was the same old story – a trickle of departing partners becomes a flood, and ultimately the bank pulls the plug.

Not that you would have known the end was in sight if you had read our interview with Howrey managing partner Bob Ruyak (The Lawyer, 10 January), who unveiled an ambitious plan of cost-cutting and even acquisitions aimed at increasing profits.

“We’re not perfect, but I hope we’re going in the right direction,” he said. “The next couple of years will tell whether this was the right thing to do.”

Sadly the firm failed to last even the next couple of months. By March the firm’s partners had voted to ­dissolve the firm and Howrey was no more (10 March).

Dragon players

There was much brighter news for several US firms during the year, many of which ramped up their ­platforms in Asia significantly.

In particular a string of New York’s elite firms set their sights on launching or growing local law Hong Kong practices to capitalise on the IPO boom.

Davis Polk & Wardwell, Kirkland & Ellis, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Sullivan & Cromwell all launched Hong Kong law practices through high-profile lateral partner hires, poaching ­mainly from established UK firms in the market (10 October).

South Korea also finally became an option for US firms after the ­ratification of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement by both countries in November.

Within a week Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Paul Hastings both ­confirmed plans to open office’s in Seoul (28 November). Sheppard Mullin also did not waste much time, announcing that it too planned to open in Seoul (TheLawyer.com, 8 December).

Tex next

Among the overheated sectors that dominated the year, none could ­compare with energy and natural resources. The increasing importance of shale gas as a relatively cheap source of energy – the so-called ’shale gale’ – fuelled the strategic plans of many a US firm, with a succession targeting Houston in particular for office openings.

Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft got the ball rolling, scooping a nine-­partner transatlantic team from rival McDermott Will & Emery that also gave it a Houston office (20 January).

Other firms to target Houston, a trend widely reported in this year’s Transatlantic Elite, included ­Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Winston & Strawn and in 2010 Latham & Watkins.