The importance of employment law to US firms looking to grow in London was underlined last week.
Proskauer Rose and Morgan Lewis & Bockius, both known in the US for their employment practices, are targeting the City for a significant strategic push.
Proskauer has hired former Herbert Smith associate Daniel Ornstein, who joined the US firm as a partner to beef up the employment practice in the UK.
“Clients are becoming increasingly global and being in London is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says the co-chair of Proskauer’s labour and employment group Paul Salvatore. ”Finding Dan is a godsend.”
Last week Ornstein was in New York meeting his new colleagues, a trip that included being treated to a night out at the Nicks courtesy of Proskauer, a firm well-known for acting for the National Basketball Association.
But once the getting-to-know-you rounds and glad-handing are out of the way, Ornstein will set about building a team in London he hopes will match the reputation and quality that has been established by Proskauer in the US since the 1930s.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” insists Ornstein. “Proskauer’s reputation for employment law in the US is absolutely stellar, but it’s historically had to refer work away in London. The view was, why not do it ourselves?”
The US firm already has a reputation for employment work in Paris, where it has two partners and eight associates – the global practice features around 40 partners and more than 150 fee-earners. Ornstein hopes to emulate the Franch team in the UK over the coming months.
“There’s an increasing international element to employment law and often a multijurisdictional aspect, so to have London is key,” says Ornstein. “It’s a good gateway, a place you need to be.”
But although Proskauer’s decision to launch an employment team in London makes strategic sense, the move made by Morgan Lewis could be even more significant.
Morgan Lewis’s newest City-based employment partner is widely recognised as one of the biggest names in the US market.
Mark Dichter is the current chair of Morgan Lewis’s employment practice and a former chair of the American Bar Association’s labour and employment law section. Even his rival Salvatore describes him as “one of the leaders at the employment bar”.
Dichter plans to split his time between London and Morgan Lewis’s US offices.
“Mark’s move shows our commitment to our international labour practice,” says Chuck Lubar, managing partner of Morgan Lewis in London. “He’s both a superb labour lawyer plus a business generator.”
While Ornstein was doing the rounds in New York last week, Dichter was settling in to his new home in London.
“I started last Monday morning,” the employment specialist says. “I’m trying to figure out a way I can spend three-quarters of my time in each place. I’ll have residences in both places, but I’ll be spending most of my time here.”
Dichter says his arrival in London is a sign of the changing face of employment law for international firms.
“We’ve seen a change in the practice of employment law over the past few years,” he says. “It used to be very localised, now it’s increasingly globalised. More companies have global heads of employment law now, mainly because employment laws are now very similar in the US and Europe, even if the procedures for enforcement are not.”
The US may be 20 years ahead in terms of age discrimination, but the laws are now basically the same in the UK, adds Dichter, “although we’ve developed 20 years of experience”.
Ditto sexual harassment.
“The culture might be more litigious in the US, but the issues are the same,” explains Dichter. “In areas such as compensation-related claims, we’ve developed the experience in the US. And general counsel and chief employment lawyers at our clients are increasingly turning to us for issues anywhere in the world.”
Although not all of Morgan Lewis’s employment work in the City will be contentious, the economic turmoil has inevitably pushed employment law issues to the top of most companies’ agendas. So perhaps the only surprise is that it has taken these two firms as long as this to beef up in the City.
Morgan Lewis also has other plans it is cooking up with Dichter’s relocation. The firm is now targeting better integration of its European practices and sees Dichter’s move as part of a wider push into key areas such as business and finance, which includes private equity, emerging markets and funds formation work.
“There’s also a high commitment to the energy practice, both transactional and regulatory, which stems from our strong regulatory and transactional practice in the US,” says Lubar.
The other plank to Dichter’s arrival is that of fostering inter-office cooperation. Although Dichter claims the firm has been successful at working on a cross-office basis over the years, there is a tacit admission that Morgan Lewis could improve the integration of Europe into the US.
“I’ll have an informal role to help all our practice groups to relate better with the US,” says Dichter. “To be clear, this isn’t a management role. We just thought it would be helpful having someone who’s been at the firm all his career in London and knows who to call.”
Sounds as if it might not only be the clients who will be glad Dichter has upped sticks and moved to the City.