Love’s labour’s lost

Law firm international strategy is so much easier to understand once you think of it as adolescent dating – except with better grammar.

As we reveal today, earlier this year Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) dumped its old flame, New York’s Kramer Levin, with the old “It’s not you, it’s me” line. The relationship, so excitedly announced by BLP’s Neville Eisenberg and Kramer Levin’s Paul Pearlman five years ago, is definitely, like, so over.

Think back to October 2002, when BLP entered into the alliance. BLP was just another dowdy firm in the mid-market looking for some transatlantic love. Mayer Brown had merged with Rowe & Maw, while the 2003 Jones Day-Gouldens deal was just around the corner. The alliance was explicitly presented as exclusive and a prelude to a merger.

We’ll try not to linger too long on the notion of Eisenberg saying to Pearlman: “I really love you, but I’m just not in love with you.” But BLP has certainly had issues over commitment for a while.

Since 2002 its makeover has been stunning, while Kramer Levin has frankly not kept anything like the same pace. Sources close to BLP are privately disdainful of the amount of work the alliance has yielded.

The party line is that BLP and Kramer Levin have worked together on AIM and Nasdaq listings, a bit of funds work and some IP, but you’d be hard pressed to find any real client gains either side has made from the hook-up.

BLP’s profit growth has not been about leveraging off any transatlantic link, but has been from a fierce assault on the City market. Corporate referrals, the driver for most transatlantic alliances, have simply not happened – and the terms of the alliance agreement effectively prevented the corporate and competition groups from getting any work from the US.

Nowadays BLP seems to be much happier working with a looser (and to my eyes, rather unwieldy) group of preferred firms across the globe. Small wonder that for the past few years BLP has been envious of how Herbert Smith, SJ Berwin and Travers Smith have been playing the field in the US.

The relationship may not have ended with a big row, but BLP and Kramer Levin have metaphorically cut each other out of the photos; no mention of any relationship now exists on either website. At least they never moved in together.