Latham & Watkins:Debtor-lite firm is surprise host of insolvency conference
Next month in London, a rather swanky West End hotel will play host to a panoply of insolvency and restructuring specialists keen to offer their insights into the state of the market.
Goldman Sachs restructuring chiefs Jamie Sprayregen and Andrew Wilkinson (formerly partners at Kirkland & Ellis and Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft respectively), JPMorgan Chase executive director Peter Jaffe and Blackstone European restructuring group head Martin Gudgeon are just some of the stars expected to descend on the Radisson Edwardian Mayfair Hotel on 6 June.
It is a stellar line-up. For many in the industry, however, the surprise will not be the guest speakers, but the host: Latham & Watkins.
The US’s third-largest firm is known for many things, but restructuring has rarely topped the list of its standout teams. The leading bankruptcy practices in the US are widely acknowledged as those belonging to Kirkland, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom and Weil Gotshal & Manges.
In Latham’s case, the firm is recognised for its creditor-side representation, but is perceived by the market for having virtually no debtor-side practice to speak of.
As one well-known bankruptcy partner at a US firm puts it: “To be top tier you need to be able to say you can cover all sides of the equation. Latham’s perceived weakness is that the primary piece it gets is acting for the creditors or bondholders, and that it doesn’t get debtor side work on the biggest cases.”
Or, as another high-profile US bankruptcy partner says: “What appears to be missing from Latham is a repetitive debtor practice. They’re not seen as the go-to firm for debtors.”
With the arrival earlier this month of restructuring co-chair David Heller as the firm’s new global head of finance (TheLawyer.com, 22 May) and the upcoming conference stuffed with high-profile attendees, Latham appears to be aiming to raise its bankruptcy game. Less charitable observers would say it is engaging in a spot of bandwagon jumping.
The Lawyer went to meet Heller on his first official day as Latham’s new global head (22 May) and asked about the firm’s restructuring capabilities. How fair is the claim that the firm’s bankruptcy practice is primarily creditor-side?”Eminently fair,” Heller admits disarmingly. “I’d agree that we’re not particularly visible in the debtor area. But it would be unfair to say that we don’t have a number of high-profile debtor-side mandates.”
Latham’s recent debtor-side bankruptcy work includes representing one of its corporate clients, Bally Total Fitness, which found itself in public distress last year. The case was one of the 10 largest filed in 2007. Elsewhere, Latham has picked up mandates from AT&T in Latin America and more recently Damovo in Europe (a deal led by London partner John Houghton).
With the arrival of Heller there is likely to be a greater emphasis on growing the bankruptcy practice commensurate with the current market conditions. But it would be a mistake to expect an all-out assault on the market.
“To invest in cyclical practices you need a cyclical mentality,” says Heller. “Latham doesn’t have the boom and bust cycles like some senior debtor firms. We’re long-haul players.”
That said, Heller is adamant that the coming months will see an uptick not only in restructuring work generally, but in Latham’s focus on the area. “We’re looking to strengthen the debtor side and have some irons in the fire in that respect,” he reveals.
Of course, one of the barriers to Latham building a debtor-side practice is that it might not go down too well with its lender clients. Heller, to his credit, does not dodge the issue, but claims there is an opportunity there to be grabbed.
“We’re mindful of the relationships we have with the capital providers and ;very ;cognisant ;of ;that relationship when we represent a company,” he emphasises. “We wouldn’t embrace a nuclear war with the banks, although we’re capable of drawing swords if that’s what’s required. But some clients put a huge premium on our ability to understand what members of the capital structure want. We know how to talk to the capital markets.”
Latham being Latham, Heller and his team most likely know how to talk to potential debtor-side candidates too.Katten vows to expand London presenceKatten Muchin Rosenman is eyeing a range of strategic opportunities in London, which could include a local merger aimed at expanding the US firm’s exposure to the Europe, Middle East and Asia legal markets.
The firm has made expansion in London a priority. It is its only overseas outpost so far, the affiliated office being launched in June 2005 off the back of the financial services practice.
The London office currently houses 15 lawyers, but Katten’s co-heads of New York, Henry Bregstein and Josh Rubenstein, have vowed to put growth in the City at the top of the firm’s to do list.
“I don’t think we’ve reached critical mass yet in London,” says Bregstein. “I’d never put a number on it, but 35-40 lawyers would make it easier for us to attract talent.”
Bregstein, the chairman of Katten’s structured products group, is a firm believer in the internationalisation of the legal market, in particular in regard to his own area of expertise.
“The financial services market is increasingly the same jurisdictionally,” says Bregstein. “It’s very important not to be parochial. As a US lawyer, for example, you need to be aware of the ramifications of doing deals under English law.”
One of Katten’s strengths is its focus on financial services, with more than 40 lawyers in that area in New York alone and more than 80 firmwide. However, the extension of the London office would also help with another of its strong suits, private client.
“In private client we’re in London all the time, but rarely in the office,” admits Rubenstein, a national and international private client specialist. “London’s the portal for European, Middle Eastern and Asianinbound business.”
Katten’s London office was launched with the acquisition of funds boutique MW Cornish. The move marked Katten’s first attempt at opening an international office.
London is a standalone limited-liability partnership, but is fully integrated financially into the US firm.the blogBryan Cave opens purse for nurseThere’s more than one way to make sure your lawyers work harder.
Instead of standing over them with your WIP, you could always take a leaf out of Bryan Cave’s new soft and fuzzy book. The firm is launching a programme to help associates balance the ever-competing demands of work and life. But this time it’s not even their lives – it’s the lives of their parents.
“A number of our people have elderly family members who may have been taken seriously ill,” says chief HR officer Lori Johnson. “Until now these lawyers will have scrambled to get home or to the hospital, often in other states or other countries. This new service will either find them in-house assistance or a nurse to help with medical care.”
Employees get 20 days a year of adult in-home care at $4 (£2) an hour, provided by employer-sponsored care business Bright Horizons. The rest of the cost is covered by Bryan Cave.
Bryan Cave isn’t the first firm to offer ‘elder care’, as it’s known. But it might be one of the few at the vanguard of a new trend.
“I think so,” says Johnson. “Obviously we’re looking to keep people at work and focused, and this is just another way to take some of the pressure off.”
If it helps, at four bucks an hour it sounds like a good plan.