Everyone has an opinion about US firms in London: rubbish; no work; propped up by US parent; fantastic lateral hires; deep pockets; salary wars; the future; here for good; short-lived… you name it, someone thinks it. The only thing that most agree on is that it is too early to make lasting judgements. But there are, if you look hard enough, already a few shining examples: the technology firms.
The successes of Brobeck Hale and Dorr, the Oxford-based firm formed by US practices Brobeck Phleger & Harrison and Hale and Dorr, have been well documented. As revealed in The Lawyer last month, Wilson Sonsini is opening in the UK in the next year, so expect great things there from the original techie firm.
And then there is Shaw Pittman. The Washington-based firm opened its London doors in 1998 with the sole intention of tackling the UK technology market head-on. Certainly, with the reputation of its US parent behind it, it had a head start. Founded in 1954, it has offices in Washington, Virginia, New York and Los Angeles, and although a full-service firm, it has developed a reputation in the US for top-tier IT work. The US has certainly come in handy for the fledgling London office: its first deal was for long-term client Cable & Wireless.
The UK operation, despite opening at the start of the dotcom boom, made the brave, and ultimately correct, decision of ignoring the investor hysteria. It headed straight for the big stuff – outsourcing, major corporate and M&A transactions and telecoms deals. So it decided to not only ignore the then cash cow, but also to tackle some of the biggest, most established UK firms. The US reputation was vital in those early days, but recently the office has been coming into its own, both in terms of getting its own clients and in sending money home.
Last month’s AstraZeneca deal is perhaps the best example of this: it successfully bid against City firms – thought to be Bird & Bird, Baker & McKenzie and Masons – on a £1.7bn outsourcing deal with IBM.
And then, at the beginning of March, it completed a £1bn network deal for Cable & Wireless, one of the first transactions concerned with the use of internet technology to transmit voice calls. The US side was involved, notably through client partner Trevor Nagel, but the UK office led the deal. The UK operation, then, is building its own relationship with Cable & Wireless.
Part of Shaw Pittman’s success in this area has been due to the way it has built relationships in the first place. Rather than focusing on the in-house legal departments, it has bypassed them in favour of focusing on the commercial and technology guys. However, it is not a risk-free strategy; how many law firms can afford to alienate in-house lawyers?
Still, there is no risk in acting for major IT companies, as opposed to flaky dotcoms. It means Shaw Pittman can follow the old-fashioned but effective bill and pay method of doing business, with no novelties in sight. Whether it can keep this up is anyone’s guess. The office wants to take on the likes of the mighty Allen & Overy (A&O) and is keen to press ahead in telecoms. But one client does not make a practice, and taking on established giants in its field has never been an easy task – A&O has a longstanding and deserved reputation in telecoms. Shaw Pittman may have won a battle against the likes of Masons with the AstraZeneca deal, but it has not even come close to winning the war.
The office also only has four partners: Christopher Holder, Jennifer Mattingly, Alistair Maughan and Andrew Moyle, who is also managing partner. There are 13 assistants and often a smattering of temporarily-based US lawyers. Over the last six months it has lost staff, notably founding partners Andrew Dunlop and Margaret Harvey. It aims to have around 30 in the next year and will look at laterals as well as making current assistants partners – Mattingly and Holder only recently being made up themselves. The size of the office remains a problem though, particularly in a tight recruitment market.
But you have got to applaud the firm for aiming high from the start. There are no guarantees for US firms in London, but cutting a swathe through a growing, established sector is not a bad place to start.