Nords abroad: life in London

The 1980's saw a steady flow of Scandinavian law firms coming to London to set up offices. They were often housed with friendly London practices or organised premises in cooperation with other Nordic or continental firms interested in a London presence. 'Nordic' is used is preference to 'Scandinavian' to include Finnish and Icelandic practices.

Swedish firms dominate the Nordic presence in London and the largest Swedish practices are Lagerlof & Leman and Vinge.

Like all Scandinavian firms firmly entrenched in London, they keep enough capacity in their London offices to be able to deal with a wide range of business matters on location.

One of the main opportunities seen by Nordic firms is to be able to work more closely in London with English firms representing acquirers of Nordic companies. The flow of investment has been largely reversed in the course of the past 10 years. Whereas, for instance, Swedish companies used to be cash rich and keen to expand through acquisitions in the UK, they now appear to be satisfied with what they have and are consolidating their positions.

The weakness of the Swedish Krona, especially during 1995 and 1996, made Swedish companies appear cheap and, as a consequence, a number of substantial acquisitions have been handled out of the London offices of the major Swedish firms. If anything, in view of the large influx of direct foreign investment into Sweden, there has been a feeling of disappointment that the advantages of working with Swedish lawyers locally in London have not become obvious to more of the players in the market place.

Of course, due diligence exercises, negotiations, and so on, will often have to be carried out where the target is located. But the structuring of the deal, taking instructions, drafting documentation and reporting to the client are often more important activities, and much time and money can be saved if this is done in the UK with the participation of in-house counsel or outside solicitors retained by the acquirer.

A number of US companies have organised their European headquarters in the UK and appreciate the opportunity of handling legal transactions here, by working through the London offices of Nordic lawyers.

Referrals in London are typically from English lawyers and most foreign firms appear to be very conscious of the need to cooperate with them. This process seems to have been helped along by the gentlemanly attitude so far maintained between lawyers in Scandinavia who have developed their business under conditions where there was plenty of work to go around and competition was not felt to be very keen.

On the other hand, some of the major Swedish firms which have decided not to set up an office in London explain this as a reflection of their wish not to be seen as competitors to the English firms with which they enjoy a good relationship. At the same time, they appear to be depriving themselves of an opportunity to contribute to the position of London as a major market place for international legal services.

Finnish, Norwegian and Danish firms are present in small numbers. There is a clear shipping angle to the activities of Norwegian lawyers in London, such as Wikborg Rein & Co. But they recognise that between loans, arbitrations and registrations they may have to keep busy doing work which might just as well have been carried out elsewhere, but which does not suffer from being done in London. No doubt, this is a condition which exists among all Nordic firms wishing to fill their days with solid legal assignments.

The Alliance of European Lawyers has an office in London where it markets the services of its member firms: Lagerlof & Leman, De Bandt, van Hecke & Lagae, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Jeantet & Associes, Oppenhoff & Radler and Uria & Menendez.

As far as Swedish member Lagerlof & Leman is concerned, the Alliance has stimulated a steady flow of typically small jurisdictional assignments which are handled by the London office of the Alliance as a one-stop shop. However, the most satisfying instructions are undoubtedly received in the field of international mergers and acquisitions work, where significant economies of time and cost may be achieved when instructions can be dealt with by a single office.

The overall visibility of the Alliance is also thought to have helped attract business to each of the member firms in London, even when only one jurisdiction is involved. Lagerlof & Leman is strong in international arbitration where immediate access to advice on the laws of other Alliance jurisdictions may be helpful to lawyers and clients.