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Michelle Duncan has become Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft’s first litigation partner in London after helping set up Weil Gotshal & Manges in the UK. Matheu Swallow meets the woman who likes to be in control.
Michelle Duncan, the first litigation partner at US firm Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft’s London office, is something of an accidental tourist, and a lucky one at that.
After leaving her native New Zealand to follow her husband to the US where he attended Harvard Business School, Duncan’s luck led her to Linklaters. “I knew someone working at the New York office and called him up and said, ’I’m coming to America, how do I get a job?’ He said, ’Well it’s really hard but I happen to know there’s a place here.’”
When her husband suffered a bad skiing accident which forced him to take time off, Duncan was offered a job in London, so the couple moved to the UK. “It’s probably just as well, because the recession hit not long after we arrived and we figured that if we’d stayed in New York we would both have lost our jobs within 12 months,” she says.
Duncan began pursuing a legal career when studying history at university. “Halfway through the first year I realised that if I finished my history degree I could probably only ever be a teacher, an academic or a civil servant and didn’t think that was very interesting so I switched to law,” she says.
She is now part of that exclusive breed of lawyer who actually enjoy their work. “It’s fun being a lawyer, and fun being a litigator because it’s contentious and I enjoy the problem-solving aspect and you don’t have to be nice to people all the time.”
For a while, Duncan’s career played second fiddle to her other passion, gymnastics, which saw her compete in world championships and three Olympic games. She is still involved, taking time out to judge international competitions.
When she first arrived in London, Duncan’s interest in advocacy tempted her to the bar - but she decided that this was simply too much hassle and joined Clifford Chance.
She says: “Frankly, I was just too lazy. I could go to Clifford Chance, sit in the litigation department and get paid my salary or I could go to the bar where I would probably have to re-train. I took the easy option.”
Duncan was eventually tempted away from the comfort of Clifford Chance when she saw the plans of colleague Maurice Allen, who was leaving to set up the London office of Weil Gotshal & Manges.
“In a sense I wanted to do something a little more entrepreneurial or a little more interesting and perceived it as a challenge. I’ve never regretted it, even when I was in my office looking across the road at Clifford Chance, surrounded by boxes wondering what the hell I was doing,” she says.
Although leaving Clifford Chance represented a huge culture shock for Duncan, her latest move, from Weil Gotshal to Cadwalader, warrants only a shrug of the shoulders.
“A lot of people were away when I joined so there was no big welcoming committee. Initially, when I walked into the office on Monday morning it was ’here is your office and here are your boxes’ - it seems strange to say, but it doesn’t feel like a move at all,” she says.
The timing of her move has led many to the conclusion that her departure is the result of Maurice Allen’s acrimonious split with Weil Gotshal earlier this year (The Lawyer, 31 January). But Duncan denies any connection.
“It’s not fair to link [my departure] with Maurice Allen’s. Maurice and that group left at the end of January, I left two and a half months later. They’ve gone off to do whatever they’re doing and I came here,” she says.
Duncan adds that it was the nature of the firm and its clients that attracted her to Cadwalader. “I like doing banking and finance litigation and I think there are more opportunities for me to build a banking and finance-based litigation practice here than perhaps there were at Weil.”
The relationship with New York is also different at Cadwalader.
“I’m now part of the litigation department firm-wide. Weil was different - I didn’t really report into the litigation department in New York.”
She wants to keep the control she had over her own practice and believes this is possible at Cadwalader.
“I like working in a smaller environment. I’m part of a big litigation practice but I also have a lot of control over my own practice and what I do. If I go back to a big UK firm I won’t necessarily get the same degree of freedom,” she says.
The other benefit, she says, is that the practice groups in London are much more mixed. And as other practice groups tend to be among a litigator’s biggest clients it allows Duncan to get involved in different types of work and at a much earlier stage.
Duncan reports to the litigation department’s head office in New York but adds that the perception that working for a US firm means working from six in the morning through to midnight is a myth.
She says: “The pressure [from New York] isn’t there. I think US firms now appreciate that the climate in London tends to be different. English lawyers tend to work different hours.”
Unlike many who are thrust into the public eye by a high-profile move, Duncan does not try to sell her new firm’s global domination plans, or even to have a set agenda at all. “I’ve only been here a week, so I haven’t had a chance to see what’s realistic,” she says.
But she adds that the presence of US firms on the London litigation scene is growing.
“I’ve done two or three things in the last year in the High Court where the other side was a US firm. I think that’s becoming increasingly common and in neither case was the client a US client.”
Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft