LeBoeuf’s London foothold takes market by surprise

When LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae posted a £7m increase in London turnover for 2005, more than a few eyebrows were raised across the City. The reaction within the firm was not quite smug, but they certainly were not surprised.

“We’re exactly where we expected to be,” says London managing partner Peter Sharp.

Unlike some other US firms, LeBoeuf is not one to shout from the rooftops, but neither is its London operation a defensive positioning. LeBoeuf sits smack bang in the transatlantic mid-market.

The firm has practised English law since 1995 and has increased its US-dollar turnover every year since, culminating in the $48.8m (£27.89m) 2005 result.

“We have a very simple and stable plan,” says Sharp. “Our strength and ability to compete comes from a deep involvement in two individual sectors – insurance and energy. The plan is to be the top quality London legal practice to serve those two industries.”

It sounds perilously close to becoming niche, but the specialisms have borne, out of necessity, top M&A and litigation practices.

Indeed, in the past year LeBoeuf has had lead roles on each of the three insurance sector IPOs in the UK. A prime example of combining its core strengths with profitable corporate mandates.

“We’re not a firm that’s readily pigeon-holed,” says Sharp. “The difficulty our competitors have in understanding us is we have a wide range of skills and compete with different firms in different parts of their practices. You can look at other US firms and say they’re private equity or they’re project finance, but we don’t fit those categories.”

The firm may not fit, but the market is certainly starting to notice it. LeBoeuf has fast become the firm of choice for top clients in the insurance sector, and the energy practice continues to motor along, largely on the back of its strong Russian and Eastern European connections.

Like other US firms, the growth for LeBoeuf has come through laterals. And the CVs strewn across Sharp’s desk show interest in the firm is on the up.

“From my personal standpoint, the best barometer of the developing perception of our firm is the volume of top-quality laterals at partner level that approach us,” says Sharp.

Lateral hires are a big chapter in the story of LeBoeuf’s success. Insurance partner Francis Mackie from Norton Rose and corporate heavyweight Andrew Garard, the former Cable & Wireless general counsel, were the latest two laterals to land at the firm. Mackie’s arrival was delayed after Norton Rose insisted he serve out the full 12 months of his notice. Those hires followed the high-profile recruitment of Arthur Marriott QC from Debevoise & Plimpton in mid-2005 to give it a rated arbitration practice. LeBoeuf reportedly offered Marriott upwards of $2m (£1.14m) annually for his first three years, plus replacing the pension lost by quitting Debevoise, so desperate was the firm to get the arbitration and litigation capability behind its insurance practice.

In 2004 the firm added an IP practice in the City with the hire of life sciences expert Marija Danilunas from Hammonds late in the year. Earlier that year the firm picked up Vinson & Elkins London managing partner John LaMaster and Christopher Prior for its energy practice, as well as Dechert insurance partner James Lewis.

Back in 2002 the firm’s growth spurt really got going when it harpooned Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker’s London plans by taking its energy team, headed by Keith Hughes. And Weil Gotshal & Manges‘ decision to close its London project finance practice saw Bruce Johnston’s team land in the firm’s lap.

Sharp says: “[Hughes and Johnston] were significant milestones. But it isn’t all about star laterals. You need to look at a lawyer’s career through the other end of the telescope.”

Here Sharp refers to the firm’s trainee programme, which started in 1996 with one trainee. The firm will accept 10 in 2008, and a landmark day Sharp already has pencilled into his diary is the first promotion of a home-grown UK trainee to the partnership.

“That will be a very special day for me indeed,” he says, before admitting that it is still two or three years away at least.

Until that happens LeBoeuf will pile on the laterals, and Sharp’s assertion that the first quarter (Q1) of 2006 has left Q1 2005 in its wake means the firm’s growth is showing no signs of abating.

Competitors may continue to underestimate LeBoeuf for now, but Sharp, and crucially the clients, are not really interested in what anyone else thinks.