22 March 1999
Hardly a week goes by without The Lawyer reporting that a US firm has poached a high-profile partner in the City. So eyebrows were raised when we revealed Sean Pierce was leaving the London office of Weil Gotshal & Manges for Freshfields.
Pierce's decision was noteworthy not just because it bucked the trend of UK lawyers being lured by greenbacks but the fact that he was one of the four English lawyers who set up the office in the first place.
At Weil Gotshal, "initially we didn't have a photocopier, a post room or a postboy," says Pierce. He helped expand the office from four lawyers to its current level of about 60.
So why did he leave?
Pierce believes there are drawbacks to the model used by his old firm and which has been copied by other US operations in London.
"You start with a small group of partners whose experience is necessarily limited," he says.
"To grow the firm from this base is difficult, especially as it is essential to maintain the quality of the partnership group."
His views differ from those of Maurice Allen, one of his fellow founders at Weil Gotshal, who believes US firms can compete effectively without the huge infrastructure of a top-five firm.
Pierce comments: "One or two partners doesn't make a practice, or a department, which makes it difficult to compete with the top English firms at the top end of the market."
Pierce's clients are the big investment banks, and he began to doubt he could give them the service they needed. "I found that transactions were getting more complex, larger and increasingly cross-border, and I wasn't convinced these transactions could be handled at the UK office of a US firm."
For instance, he says: "If you are working on a transaction in Germany, how do you do it without a German capability?"
Pierce, whose parents are Irish, was born in Derby and brought up in the North of England. He joined Weil Gotshal in November 1995 from Linklaters and worked with managing partner Allen to establish the office. Pierce and Allen had played football together at Clifford Chance, where Pierce qualified in 1987.
Neatly turned out in his pinstriped suit, Pierce now looks every bit the young partner at a magic circle firm. And he is keen to praise his new employer for having the "depth and international capability" that he was seeking. But he is no conformist. Pierce has a reputation for questioning received wisdom and playing the devil's advocate in discussions.
This individualism is, says a source, reflected in the hairstyles that mark him out from the mass of City lawyers. He grew his "short, spiky" look of a few years ago into long, lustrous locks to rival those of footballer David Ginola.
He was ribbed by former colleagues at Weil Gotshal for the restrained style he adopted shortly before moving to Freshfields.
A former colleague says Pierce is a classy footballer - he plays for a Sunday league side - who constantly moans that his team's problems would be solved if his fellow team-mates would only give him more of the ball. Hopefully Freshfields will be doing just that.