Last year was pretty good for most finance practices. By the beginning of 2001, the telecoms bubble had well and truly burst and Europe was following the US towards recession. The beginning of the year also saw some large-scale debt financing by the investment banks to fund acquisitions, while the second half of the year was dominated by debt restructurings, in particular since 11 September.
Allen & Overy (A&O) and Clifford Chance are still the market leaders, but Linklaters has pulled ahead of some mid-tier finance firms, including Norton Rose and Ashurst Morris Crisp. Linklaters has made a sizeable dent in the syndicated loan market (where a very large loan is made to a single borrower by a group of banks headed by a lead bank). A&O and Clifford Chance need to admit that the banks are ready for more choice and recognise that an increasing number of bankers now view Linklaters as a global player.
In the European medium term note (MTN) programmes (a facility which allows companies to issue bonds over a period of time) the top three firms are virtually indistinguishable. In fact, there's something a bit smug about A&O, Linklaters and Clifford Chance when they talk about MTN programmes. But it is worth noting that German firm Hengeler Mueller is making an effective challenge to their pre-eminence, albeit in only German law.
Norton Rose will lose the majority of its acquisition finance practice this year when four partners move to A&O, losing its two highest-billing partners. This will also weaken links with some of its most important banking clients, including HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan Chase.
In terms of lateral moves, the biggest news was the departure of Erica Handling and her collateral debt obligation practice, which was wooed away from the London office of US firm Weil Gotshal & Manges by Ashurst Morris Crisp. Some have said that Ashursts is an odd choice for the trio, but it makes sense given Ashursts' strategy to focus on building a strong debt finance practice.
US firm Brown & Wood's merger with fellow US firm Sidley & Austin created a structured finance force to be reckoned with. At first both practices may have been a bit unsure of exactly what they were linking up with, but from the outside it looks like a perfect match.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer focused on niche areas of finance such as securitisation, vendor financing and real estate financing. And there are signs from Citibank that it is mending relations with the firm, which were severed when it advised the Prince of Brunei on a claim against the bank.
The in-house team at Standard Chartered Bank, led by Kate Nealon, won The Lawyer's In-house Banking & Finance Team of the Year award for its $1.34bn (£940m) acquisition of Grindlays Bank. A&O won the Finance Team of the Year award for its telecoms financing. It advised on deals worth more than e10bn (£6.14bn) in 2000, including advising the arrangers of the e100m (£61.4m) debut financing for Virgin Mobile.
So although there have not been any dramatic changes in the ranking tables, there has been enough movement and change to keep firms on their toes. The gap between the top tier and the second and third tiers are beginning to close as the lagging firms penetrate the markets they specialise in. You can rest assured there is no room for anyone to get complacent.