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You might almost think Denton Wilde Sapte (DWS) has a bit of a crush on CMS Cameron McKenna. First it takes on Camerons’ troubled Central Asia offices, then it follows Camerons in chopping China. The difference is that DWS had to bring in former Clifford Chance chief Geoffrey Howe to tell it what to do – sorry, to consult widely with partners and come up with recommendations.
Plenty of other firms are considering scaling down in Asia. For most firms in the upper end of the mid-market, Europe is the most important arena. But in The Lawyer Euro100, DWS is currently seventeenth – a vulnerable position when the likes of Shearman & Sterling and Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw are just behind.
But a US merger is not on the agenda, say senior sources, and neither is closing Almaty and Tashkent. Let’s pause here for a mild snort of derision. Yes, the US has been a distraction, although at some point DWS will have to accept that to be favoured by major European financial institutions means having a US capital markets practice.
And there are plenty of DWS London partners who’d be delighted to get rid of Central Asia, which is internally perceived as an irrelevance. Camerons partners jumped with ill-concealed glee when they managed to dump the offices on DWS four years ago.
Unfortunately for DWS, it has four practice areas – energy, technology, media and telecoms, financial services and real estate – with virtually no interconnection except on projects, which hasn’t been enough to propel it into the big league. Four practice areas, four sets of performance indicators, four client bases, four sets of competitors.
One of DWS’s measures of success – printed on every fee-earner’s mouse-mat, I kid you not – is that its profits per partner (ppp) should compare well with other chasing pack firms. But those firms include Norton Rose and Simmons, where ppp has been woeful and which need a dose of Howe, pronto.
And who’s the other firm in that chasing group? Why, Camerons, which is by far the most robust. Europe is virtually in place; pointless outposts closed with minimum fuss; revenue per lawyer and PPP are the highest of the four – and that’s with an all-equity partnership.
With a bit more pruning, DWS may have stopped the rot. Howe built a global empire for Clifford Chance. How poignant that he’s helping DWS partners to dismantle theirs.