Mayer Brown goes for Smoke

US firm in talks to fortify London in wake of sweeping governance changes.

Sean Connolly

Sean Connolly

The news that Mayer Brown is in talks with Allen & Overy’s (A&O) leveraged finance team and a group of White & Case capital markets partners (The Lawyer, 22 June) must have made a refreshing change for the US firm.

Former co-vice-chair Paul Maher’s departure to US firm Greenberg Traurig to launch its London office has dominated the headlines recently and lent weight to the impression of Mayer Brown as a firm under siege.

But Mayer Brown is more than just one (admittedly high-profile) partner, and the exit of Maher and the installation of a new ­management structure could mark the dawning of a new era for the entire firm.

Mayer Brown’s committee has now been scrapped and replaced with a leaner, more focused governance structure. The 12-member partnership board and six-partner management committees are led by new firm chairman, Chicago-based partner Bert Krueger.

“The old system was unwieldy,” maintains Mayer Brown London head Sean Connolly. “It took us time to reach agreement on ­exactly what we needed the new management structure to be, but we’ve now reached the right conclusion. There are representatives from around the network on the ­committees.”

The new management ­committees incorporate partners from across the network, including ­Connolly, fellow London partner Jeremy Clay and Krueger.

“The idea is to enable everyone to have some level of direct access to management with relative ease,” says Connolly. “We’ve also ­separated the compensation and ­partnership responsibilities from the overall strategic responsibilities of the management committee so that the processes are more ­efficient.”

With the new governance ­structure in place Mayer Brown is now looking to advance its growth by focusing on lateral hires into corporate and finance.
When The Lawyer met them last week, Connolly and Clay were keen to stress that the firm has not strayed too far from the growth plan for London that it laid out in 2006.

“Growing corporate and finance is still at the centre of our growth plans,” insists Clay. “We’ve put aside plans to double the size of our ­securitisation practice and have certainly tweaked our strategy, but we’re still going ahead.”

Mayer Brown is now focusing on building a capital markets and high-yield finance practice in the absence of securitisation ­possibilities. Boldly, it is also ­hoping to expand its client base from ­traditional industrial ­corporates and build up its roster among commercial and City ­financial institutions.

The talks with the heavyweight teams from A&O and White & Case underline Mayer Brown’s commitment to London as an important financial centre. This is particularly crucial for the firm’s City partners, as the loss of Maher and the new management populated largely by US-based partners has fostered the market ­perception that the firm is retrenching back to its Chicago roots.

“We admit we were unsure whether our global management would still support us in our drive to recruit laterally in London,” says Clay. “Bert [Krueger] and [firmwide managing partner] Ken [Geller] were very supportive when we ­discussed our tweaked strategy with them. There are a lot of opportunities for us now. It’s important we’re able to take them.”

Given the downturn, few would blame the firm for hunkering down and pulling back the reins on international growth. But Clay and Connolly insist that this is
not the case with Mayer Brown.

The firm, they claim, remains ­dedicated to the London market.

“We’ve not abandoned our plans to grow London,” Connolly states. “Things have changed and our focus has been adapted, but ­London’s still an important part of the firm.”

Growing the London office ­during the downturn will be ­challenging, although some big-name hires could do the trick. But with dealflow at rock bottom, there cannot be that many ­corporate and finance partners out there willing to join Mayer Brown along with the all-important book of business.

But for Clay that might be ­missing the point. “Some firms will be asking for a big book of business from their lateral recruits,” says Clay. “This is just not realistic. These ­partners have been successful at their firms and are very good lawyers. Market conditions mean their practice has suffered. We need to be thinking about what they can do for the firm in the future. Do they have the right ­business ­development skills?”

For years Mayer Brown’s ­London office has been ­synonymous with Maher, but the firm is now focusing on the future and the opportunities the credit crisis may provide. “You have to turn your attention to the junior ranks,” says one London-based Mayer Brown partner. “There have been a lot of changes at the firm. As well as laterally hiring the capabilities we need, bringing people through the ranks is ­crucial.”

Mayer Brown is determined to show that positive change can emerge from upheaval, be that the pressures of the financial ­meltdown or the loss of one ­particularly high-profile partner.