But the firm’s dreams of joining the legal elite never quite materialised.
Managing ;partner ;Mark Dawkins admits: “Twelve to 13 years ago we said we wanted to catch up with the magic circle. Which was a mistake, frankly.”
A decade on and those ambitions are a distant memory. An annual turnover of £290m last year places them some way behind Ashurst, let alone Clifford Chance. “We moved away from that quite a long time ago,” says Dawkins, “and we’re very content to compete where we can at the top of the market through our focus on key sectors.”
Which leaves Simmons, and its corporate practice, something of an enigma. It is no longer snapping at the heels of the top four; it is nowhere near the likes of Slaughter and May; and does not enjoy the deal-making reputations of Macfarlanes or Travers Smith.
One former Simmons corporate partner explains: “There hasn’t been consistent and cohesive news from the firm as to what they’re up to. It’s quite opaque to the outside world.”
To which Dawkins concedes: “We have a bit of a visibility problem.”
And yet the corporate group was one of Simmons’ star practices in the past year, helping the firm to a rise in turnover of 16 per cent. Corporate is expected to have contributed at least a quarter of this, in line with previous years.
While those figures might not have set the market alight, the corporate practice has clearly come a long way since the dark days of 2004, when the firm lost 11 partners in the space of two months as profit stalled.
“The problem was that the corporate practice had shrunk and shrunk,” says one former Simmons partner. “I couldn’t really see how they were going to change it that dramatically.”
But change it did. At one point there were just 11 corporate partners in London, but the office now boasts 23.
Dawkins took over leadership of the firm in 2005 and within a year average profit per equity partner had risen by 40 per cent, from £275,000 to £385,000.
Dawkins’ focused strategy – to target four key sectors and make the most of the international network – defines Simmons’ corporate practice today.
In common with the rest of the firm, the corporate group now concentrates almost exclusively on those key sectors of technology, media and telecoms; financial institutions; ;energy ;and infrastructure; and life sciences.
Global head of corporate Damon ;Le ;Maitre-George explains: “A lot of those firms we’re pitching for work against are bigger than us. We have to choose our battleground.”
The four sectors were chosen partly because Simmons already had expertise in those areas, but also because they are highly regulated areas where detailed knowledge is especially valuable to clients.
Within financial institutions, for example, Simmons is already a market leader in the hedge funds sector. According to Le Maitre-George the firm acts for seven of the 10 biggest funds in Europe, resulting in a stream of work for the corporate practice.
Simmons corporate head in London Mark Curtis says hedge funds are starting to behave more like private equity houses by buying stakes in private unlisted companies.
“Financial institutions are hugely important in London, particularly on the hedge funds side. We’ve been seeing that give rise to a lot of other corporate work,” he says. One of the firm’s key corporate deals of last year, for example, was the $14bn (£7.08bn) flotation of the Gottex hedge fund on the Swiss exchange.
Another area that Le Maitre-George is banking on growing in 2008 is private equity – not something traditionally associated with the firm.
“Private equity is an area we need to grow in. Traditionally we’ve not been as strong as we’d like to be,” he admits. The firm recently hired private equity partners Matt Rees and Arthur Stewart from O’Melveny & Myers and Debevoise & Plimpton respectively, where they were both associates, in a bid to become more than just a minor player on the scene. Which, given the current state of the private equity market, could be easier said than done.
That said, Simmons’ London rivals might be shocked to see the firm’s roster of private equity clients in Italy, with the firm acting for some of the biggest, including 3i, Permira and Apax Partners.
This could offer another explanation for Simmons’ lack of visibility in the UK – much of the corporate group’s revenue, somewhere between a third and a half, comes from its overseas network.
Simmons enjoys a very strong reputation in the Netherlands and has recovered admirably from a disastrous spell in Italy. But it remains under-strength in France, Germany and Hong Kong, where Le Maitre-George was transfered after a massive raid by Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson. It also has a growing corporate presence in the Middle East, with offices in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
“The international practice is very important to us. More than half our lawyers are outside London,” says Le Maitre-George.
True, Simmons is not unusual in this, but in the recent partnership promotions round, three of five new corporate partners were outside the UK – in Paris, Rotterdam and Düsseldorf.
While the international offering is clearly important to the firm, it is not without risk, as one former Simmons partner points out. “How sustainable is it to have three offices in Italy and two in Portugal? It breaks even if you’re lucky; it loses money if you’re not.”
Multiple overseas branches do not come cheap and hit the bottom lines of smaller firms harder than those higher up the food chain.
One senior City corporate partner queries: “Is it possible to be a small global firm? Because in global terms Simmons is small.”
Whatever the outlook, the firm is not frightened to invest in the future. The last promotions round saw a bumper 18 lawyers join the partnership across its overseas network. Including the five promotions in corporate, Le Maitre-George’s practice took on a total of 14 new partners last year and he expects similar growth this year, with further expansion of London a priority.
Just do not expect Simmons to catch up with the magic circle any time soon.
Total number of corporate partners: 57 (23 in London)
Corporate revenue: Approximately £72m
Office locations: London, Western Europe, Russia, Middle East, Asia
Key sectors: Technology, media and telecoms; financial institutions; energy and infrastructure; life sciences
Key clients: Becton Dickinson, China Telecom, HSBC, JPMorgan, Shell, Telefonica, Veolia