Olswang spent its teenage years alternately wanting to be accepted by the City establishment and cocking a snook at it. Always best known for its hip (well, by law firm standards) media brand, its decision to go all-out for corporate, private equity and real estate seemed like borrowing another girl’s lipstick.
Similarly, its opportunistic moves were fabulously on-trend, but didn’t always work out. The Reading office – a spur-of-the-moment buy in the closing-down sale at Andersen Legal – was a jumble of practice areas, and nearly a decade on it has only just found a niche as an onshoring base.
The firm’s alliance with Greenberg Traurig yielded some referrals, but the fragility of the relationship was plain to see when the Miami firm decided to set up in London on its own two years ago.
lswang’s current non-exclusive deal with Cooley may seem like a good match, but there ain’t much passion in the relationship – it smacks rather of the rebound.
Now Olswang is entering a different phase: it looks as if it’s following a strategy rather than relying on inherited flair. Perhaps the half-year figures that showed Germany and Brussels booming while London continued to dip concentrated partners’ minds; 10 per cent of profits to fund international growth is certainly an investment. Although it is at the lower end of what the management asked partners to consider, the tithe signals a communal buy-in to a vision of a newly internationalised practice. Sure, it’s not much of an outlay compared with Bird & Bird’s, whose Habsburgian mini-empire has yet to repay much in financial dividends but which is way ahead of Olswang in exploring new markets.
Olswang’s decade-long vision of becoming a major player in corporate and real estate is still a little too shallowly rooted for comfort. It has not emulated the success of Taylor Wessing, which pulled off a serious German merger, managed to shuck off its TMT-only mantle in the early years of the past decade and has entered the ranks of the City upper-middleweights. Whether Olswang’s counter-intuitively conservative partnership will pull off the transition to international player remains to be seen. But putting a price on the investment means the partners can’t say they weren’t told.