Leader

Some refuge the US firms have turned out to be. For many City lawyers, the Americans originally represented a perfect escape route from partnership politics, firm bureaucracy and stale thinking. Yet in many cases it was a mirage. There is no such thing as unending resources from a rich US parent; combine that with an overoptimistic assessment on the part of some UK partners concerning how quickly they can develop a sustainable business, and you have what might be charitably described as a clash of expectations. Buchanan Ingersoll is not the first US firm to scale back its City ambitions; and it won't be the last.
In any case, a cynic might question how entrepreneurial you can be on a guaranteed level of earnings, which is usually what US firms offer prominent partners. And however strategically important it is for the US firm to be in London, there is always some bloke in Nebraska getting jittery about how much London, England is costing.
Yet there is an alternative. If City lawyers really want to slake their thirst for adventure, then why not go really niche? In other industries, senior individuals regularly reinvent their careers by setting up serial boutiques. For them, the challenge is the challenge. This would not work for resource-heavy disciplines such as banking, projects or M&A, but it would for commercial, employment and intellectual property.
All of this will be brought into sharp relief this week at The Lawyer Awards. (One feels obliged here to add the words 'premier event of the legal calendar' or just 'glittering', but then you know that already.) This year The Lawyer is giving its first ever award for niche firm of the year. What has been fascinating is the extraordinary number of entries this category attracted, from firms handling an astonishing variety of work. Our final shortlist of six ranged from personal injury to corporate finance, and it was by far the hardest category to judge. They all had three things in common: focus, energy and an almost tangible sense of enjoyment.
Certainly, those niche firms will have to deal with resource problems. But the more canny among them are beginning to network with other niche firms in order to supplement their resources, with a startling number of collaborative arrangements beginning to spring up.
Speak to many partners at those firms and they will say that it may be tough but it's exhilarating. It's not about money, but freedom and innovation. Can most lawyers working for US firms in London really say the same?
catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.co.uk