Legal speak

Decoding what lawyers say gives us endless hours of amusement. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious. A partner leaves, and you can bet that the managing partner will comment: “We wish him well.” Occasionally, they might add: “But our practice is thriving and will continue to be successful” – a comment that always speaks volumes about what’s lurking below the surface.

Students of subtext will also like the quote from Richards Butler managing partner Roger Parker in today’s lead story on his firm talking to New York’s Proskauer Rose. He declared: “We do talk to firms from time to time, but we’re not in negotiations.” For “talk to firms from time to time”, read: “We’ve been looking for a merger partner in the US for three years.” For “not in negotiations”, read: “We haven’t released the full due diligence to the partnership yet.”

Whatever happens from here on in, the two firms have been talking since the latter part of last year. Whether or not it ends up in full-blown merger – plenty of talks founder – a transatlantic tie-up is fundamental to Richards Butler’s international progress. Richards Butler has always been more Atlanticist than European; ever since its aborted three-way deal with Denton Hall (now Denton Wilde Sapte) and Theodore Goddard (now Addleshaw Goddard) in 1998, the central plank of its international strategy has been merger with a US firm.

As far as Richards Butler is concerned, Proskauer looks like a pretty good bet. It’s not cuddly, but it’s stable, and its strongest suit is litigation, particularly high-level employment cases. You can see the fit already with Richards Butler’s disputes practice, which has had such a fillip from the Barclays-HSH case starting this year. And Proskauer doesn’t quite have the same status in New York as other Manhattan litigation shops such as Paul Weiss or Kaye Scholer, so gaining international reach may help it to steal a march on its domestic competitors.

But what about Richards Butler in Hong Kong? Its history, client base and profitability have always been very different from the London business. Sources close to the firm say that there is no reason to suppose that the wealthy Hong Kong partnership would be part of any deal with Proskauer. Richards Butler has always been two profit centres; for the last six or seven years it has actually been two separate partnerships united by one brand – a sort of Bevan Ashford on steroids. A Hong Kong deal with a US firm can’t be too far behind.