Finance

Some might say that Norton Rose has a problem with its image. You may be wondering why its logo looks like an embroidered egg – or is it a bridge table? – and your confusion is understandable as it is only on closer inspection that you will be able to decipher the letters pertaining to the four points of a compass.`But what is its meaning? Does the compass reflect the firm’s focus on its shipping practice? Or perhaps its vast international presence? Wrong on both counts. The answer is obvious – it’s a tribute to the firm’s acquisition finance practice and its new found direction.`The group is optimistically positioning itself alongside Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy (A&O). And under the banner “you can’t be all things to all people” the group is opening itself up to the high-end work. As with a number of second-tier firms, it is claiming that it wants to be known for its high-value transactions involving leveraged funds, and if you believe Norton Rose, high-yield debt.`And this isn’t surprising. A number of firms seem to have graciously bowed out of the ‘vanilla’ finance work in favour of specialising and putting an emphasis on quality.`The consensus seems to be that complexity and cost are more important than volume. But surely we are being misled here – don’t firms often judge their own performance on the increase they gain in market share and isn’t new high-end work often won on the back of the volume stuff? How else are clients going to strike up relationships with their lawyers and indulge in all the other trimmings which reportedly differentiate one law firm from another?`Norton Rose’s acquisition finance practice’s longstanding relationships with Chase Manhattan Bank (now JP Morgan Chase & Co) and to a lesser extent the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) account for a large chunk of the firm’s work. Norton Rose would have us believe that only around 25 per cent of transactions come from JP Morgan Chase, but the perception in the market is that it is much higher.`In 1999 the group did a £1.4bn financing for Chase on Zeneca Speciality Chemicals which involved a high-yield issue, but since then it has not been particularly visible in the high-yield market. But all of this could change. Last month, the firm took on acquisition finance partner Tom Speechley from Jones Day Reavis & Pogue in New York. Andrew Bamber told The Lawyer at the time that his appointment would strengthen the firm’s capacity to do high-yield debt work.`Other banking clients include the Bank of Scotland, Fuji Bank and HSBC and it’s worth mentioning some of the group’s corporate clients, such as TXU Europe, Trinity Europe, Axa and Mannesmann. But despite name dropping, the group is a long way from shedding its image as a name made by Chase.`Following the departure of Philip Whale, who took early retirement in April, Tim Polglase and Andrew Bamber are doing well bringing in the work. Polglase’s close relationship with Deutsche Bank’s managing director of European acquisition finance David Wood brings in a sizeable amount, as does Bamber’s friendship with RBS. In leveraged buyout work the big name is Polglase, but Bamber was the highest-billing partner last year.`The group has had a good year and the banking department as a whole boasts a 37 per cent increase in profits on last year. Prominent deals include advising Chase on its euro250m (£150.5m) debt packaging for Gerresheimer Glas and advising RBS on buyouts of Ward Homes and Powell Duffryn. All three come from the usual suspects.`So why does Norton Rose have a problem being recognised in a market where it clearly sees itself in the top tier along with A&O and Clifford Chance? The problem is that its competitors see it as second-tier and rank it below Shearman & Sterling and Ashurst Morris Crisp, and alongside Lovells.`Perhaps it really does come down to image. If only it was as simple as losing that compass.