Curious beasts: Lawyer 2B looks at the myths and reality of American firms in London
16 December 2013 | By Richard Simmons
14 May 2014
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American firms in London: Lawyer 2B examines the truth behind the myths
Mention American law firms in London and a slew of stereotypes emerge. But are all US firms alike? And in an era when law is increasingly globalised, what does ‘US firm’ even mean?
Lawyer 2B assembled a panel of partners who have worked at both US and UK firms, threw in a trainee
for good measure, and got them talking…
Q. First of all, is your firm actually comfortable being described as American?
David Smith, training partner, Jones Day: I’m not sure if it’s a question of being comfortable being described as such, but to me it doesn’t feel like I’m working in an American law firm.
We obviously have a very big US presence and a history in America that we’re very proud of, but if you come into this office it’s not full of Americans.
It feels more like an international firm. For example, I got an email this morning from a colleague in our Taipei office about a deal they want us to get involved with.
James Lightley-Hunt, trainee, Jones Day: I’d agree that you don’t get the sense of being part of something that’s definitively American. I work with our offices outside of America just as often as with offices in America.
Andrew Hearn, partner and co-head of graduate recruitment, Dechert London: I don’t think we have any objection to being called an American firm, but it isn’t an accurate description. If you look at the statistics, a significant proportion of our lawyers, our offices and our revenues are outside the US.
We’ve now got 26 offices around the world, 13 of them are in the States and 13 of them aren’t. More than half of our corporate lawyers are now based outside the US. So the more accurate description of Dechert is that it’s an international firm.
Mark Soundy, partner,: I’d answer that from two different viewpoints. From a graduate recruitment viewpoint we like to be seen as an international firm. That’s simply because it reflects the fact that over half of our lawyers work outside the US and our management committee is made up of lawyers from all over the world and it’s irrelevant where they actually practice.
However, from a business perspective we really like our US-ness. We emphasise to clients that we have a US nature. What that actually means is that partners roll up their sleeves and get on with it – they are very client focused. Second, we tend to model ourselves in a slightly leaner way than UK firms, so we keep our teams extremely nimble – on any given transaction there is typically just a partner, a senior associate and maybe a junior associate. Third, if you’re looking for the cutting edge of the market, as our clients are, you’re going to find it in the most sophisticated market in the world – and that’s the US.
Q. What is Shearman’s history in London?
Soundy: As a firm Shearman & Sterling is almost unique in that it was one of the few firms that, after the Second World War, were smart enough to realise that the world was changing and it was no longer just about the US.
We established our Paris office 50 years ago and we’ve been in London for 40 years. We even established ourselves in Abu Dhabi 40 years ago – only three years after the establishment of Abu Dhabi as a nation. So it was a very far-sighted approach.
I don’t know exactly what percentage of the work in London is home-grown but I would say it’s at least 70 per cent and probably even higher.
Q. Whereas Jones Day and Dechert established their London offices through mergers…
Smith: Yes, Gouldens was a mid-sized broad practice based on corporate, litigation and real estate. It was always one of those firms that was regarded as punching above its weight – it worked for some good clients and was doing deals opposite magic circle firms.
I was part of Gouldens and, apart from the quality of work that we’re doing now, the office feels very similar to how it always did. We would never have entered into a merger with Jones Day [in 2003] if the cultures of the two firms weren’t similar. The difference is that we now have clients of global scale. If someone at Goldman Sachs had instructed Gouldens, that might have been viewed as a bit of a risk, but to instruct Jones Day is not a risk at all, so we got so many introductions because of that.
Hearn: Titmuss Sainer & Webb was a well-known mid-sized commercial London practice with strengths in corporate and real estate. In 1994, after we had spent a few years working with the London office of Dechert Price & Rhoads, which was a small office in those days, we became Titmuss Sainer Dechert. It wasn’t a full merger at that stage, but we started to share work and represented many clients together. We became more and more aligned with each other, and finally merged in July 2000. We were beaten to the post by a matter of weeks as the first transatlantic merger by Clifford Chance and Rogers & Wells.
Since 2000 there’s been enormous strategic growth around the world. The differences between the Titmuss of old and the firm in London today are significant. Today, most of the lawyers in London would see their practices as being predominantly international rather than predominantly national.
Q. Is there any feeling of the London office being an outpost of the US?
Hearn: When you’re an international practice, you work very closely with colleagues in other offices and we’re helped by the fact that we approach things not on an office-by-office basis but on a practice-group basis. So the measure of my success, and my team’s success, is on how my practice group across the world is doing, not specifically on how well London is doing.
Smith: There’s certainly no suggestion that London is an ‘overseas’ office. Steve Brogan, our managing partner, spends so much of his time in Asia and Europe. The amount of time he spends on planes visiting different parts of the firm is incredible. Jones Day has 40 offices, so to be a successful managing partner of a firm like ours you’ve got to choose the right people to put your faith in, because it’s just too big a job for one person.
Sarah Priestley, partner, Shearman & Sterling: What’s interesting is that a huge number of Shearman’s very senior people in the States have worked in the London office. And not just for a quick year or six months – our global managing partner David Beveridge was here for more than 10 years. That makes things slightly different, because you don’t feel like any kind of outpost, it really feels like you are part of one firm.
Q. There is a perception that the London offices of US firms are hampered by having to get approval from the head office in the States before it makes any decisions…
Smith: That’s not the case in the slightest. Each individual office is trusted to a large degree to run themselves. If you’ve practised in New York you don’t necessarily know how to run a London practice.
The global managing partner delegates a lot of his decision-making powers to the partners in charge of the various offices. So the managing partner is in constant touch with the partners in charge, but on a day-to-day basis we don’t have to send things back to anybody, whether that’s in the US or any of the other offices.
Hearn: I can understand why that would be a question in any large organisation. I don’t think we’re a firm that’s laden with bureaucracy – people have enough freedom to get on with their practice. I certainly don’t feel I have to go through some highly bureaucratic process to achieve what I need to achieve.
Priestley: One thing I’ve noticed is the real entrepreneurial spirit here. One thing I’m interested in is diversity and women’s initiatives, and when I first arrived I said I wanted to do some stuff. They said, if you want to do it, go ahead. There’s a real feeling that if you want to do something you can do it without having to check yourself.
Q. Perhaps the chief perception of life at an American firm is that the salaries are astronomical – much higher than those of the magic circle – but the pay-off is that trainees and associates are worked much harder than elsewhere.
Priestley: It’s a myth. And it’s always been a myth – I was told the same thing when I first joined a US firm [Weil Gotshal] back in 1997. The truth is that if you’ve got a transaction on, you work, but you can’t work any harder at a US firm than you can at a UK firm.
Once upon a time I would have said the best thing you could do was to train at a magic circle firm, leave when you qualified and then go and work for an international firm. I don’t think that’s true any more. Now, I think you can get just as good a training at firms outside the magic circle, with much more hands-on work at an international firm. And then you get paid more as well.
Soundy: If you’re going to have any sort of successful career in the City, whether as an investment banker, accountant or lawyer, you are going to have to work hard. And people do work phenomenally hard. But most people here don’t need to be motivated by hours targets – if they come here at all, they want to work.
What is different from the magic circle is that it’s a more intense experience here. We do expect a lot of our trainees because we’ve got leaner teams and they are put front and centre on transactions. If you’re in a team of three or four compared with gazillions at the magic circle, you really are in the spotlight. So you’re working the same number of hours as magic circle lawyers but the intensity of the experience is probably a little bit stronger.
Priestley: We monitor very carefully the whole work-life balance. In fact, the way things are moving with remote working, you don’t have to be to be in the office all the time. When I was a trainee, we still had fax machines and you had to sit at your desk to be there when the fax arrived. Things have really changed.
I work hard, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t go home and put the kids to bed, then work in the evening. So although you work hard, you can manage the experience in a way that means you can see your mates and have a life.
Smith: We expect people to work hard, but I don’t think our lawyers work any harder here than they do at anywhere else in the City. If you’re given the American label, some people think that the only metric is ‘eat what you kill’ and that if you don’t make your billing targets, there’s no consideration of anything else. That’s not the way we run things here. There is obviously a financial metric involved, but we look at many more things when we’re assessing people. For example, my involvement with recruitment gets taken into account.
It’s a much more rounded assessment process, which is maybe not the perception students have. It’s difficult for people to get their mind around that until they get into the firm, and it’s especially difficult for people who think of us as American, because it’s the antithesis of what people think a US law firm is.
Lightley-Hunt: I feel as though I work the hours that I need to work to get things done, and sometimes that’s a lot of hours – but I don’t think that’s any different to other firms of a similar size with a similar quality of work and clients.
The one thing I would say is there’s very little feeling of the need to put in face time – if you don’t need to be here late, you don’t have to be here late.
Hearn: There’s no getting away from the fact that our associates do work hard. They get real responsibility and are given access to clients early in their careers.
As the co-head of graduate recruitment I have always taken great pride in the fact that our trainees get real responsibility. It means by the time they qualify there isn’t the quantum leap that arises if trainees are treated as merely onlookers or observers. At Dechert they’re treated as junior lawyers who by the time they’ve qualified are really very competent.
Although our lawyers work hard, we are respectful of all our lawyers’ private lives. There are of course swings and roundabouts. For example, I came out of a huge case last year in which people had worked exceptionally hard for a long period of time, but then there was a period of relative calm for a while.
Q. What can firms of this nature offer that others cannot?
Lightley-Hunt: One factor is being able to join a fairly small trainee intake in a smaller office, balanced with a global presence and global work. If you look at London offices of a similar size to us, they probably don’t have the same global capacity.
Smith: Access to the US. We have offices in pretty much all of the major cities there, not just New York. Some of our biggest clients come from the Midwest, for example. Some of the magic circle firms are trying to get that coverage but it’s a lot more difficult to go from London to America than it is to go from America to the rest of the world.
Sponsor’s comment: Lois Gordon, director of HR, Europe & Middle East, Shearman & Sterling
Shearman & Sterling was one of the first US firms to emerge in the UK legal market. Established in 1972, the London office has moved away from its Wall Street foundations and over 80 per cent of the office are now England & Wales-qualified.
We have run a successful training contract programme for more than 10 years and have spring and summer vacation schemes. The two-week scheme is a chance for participants to see the realities of working for a US-origin firm in London and to dispel some commonly held myths.
Myth 1: Lack of support
With fewer trainees per year, US firms can tailor their training contracts to the individual. At Shearman, trainees share an office with a senior associate or partner supervisor, who helps manage their workload, explain deals and give constructive feedback. Trainees also choose a mentor to guide them through seat rotations and the appraisal process.
Myth 2: Longer working hours
US firms are committed to delivering exceptional results for clients, which can mean working long hours, though this is the case for all top-tier law firms. At Shearman, there is a real culture of getting on with it, meaning lawyers and support staff of all levels pull together to work to deadlines. The collegial atmosphere means there is no ‘face time’, and when work is not urgent we do 9.30-5.30 days.
Myth 3: Lack of job security at smaller/newer firms
Formerly, trainees felt they needed a brand-name UK firm on their CVs, and US firms were viewed a riskier option for starting a career. In fact, we are truly international so can offer a great service to multinational clients, who find New York and England & Wales law increasingly dominate their transactions. Accordingly, there is a strong demand for English-speaking, English-qualified lawyers in firms with a global reach.
The myths around US-origin firms are just that. The reality is they can offer lawyers the chance to work with household-name clients on headline-making deals, while benefiting from streamlined teams with great partner interaction.