The end of the line for Coudert

Even at the end, Coudert partners couldn’t bear very much reality. The conference call last week that decided the firm’s fate had all the elements of high farce. In discussing the closure, partners were told not to mention the word ‘dissolution’. (Or ‘liquidation’. Or indeed any word that conveyed finality.) Instead, there was euphemism after euphemism, culminating in the splendid move to set up a ‘special situations committee’ to supervise the winding up of the business.

How different an end Coudert’s was from Brobeck’s or Altheimer’s (see page 2), each of which exploded into recriminations. Coudert’s demise has a much more apathetic air, entirely in keeping with the partnership itself. About the only time it was ever galvanised into action was when it thought it was being victimised by outsiders. Hence the threatened lawsuit against Orrick after the wholesale defection of the London office.

In fact, the Coudert leadership (although the very word ‘leadership’ is a spectacular misnomer) spent more time worrying about the press than telling its own people what was going on. We spoke to at least one senior Coudert lawyer whose only information on what was happening last week was through our website. His sense of betrayal was palpable.

Coudert’s delusional take on its own ‘special situation’ was evident in the firm’s press release confirming our story. It ran: "After exploring various options, the partners of Coudert have authorised the firm to enter into combinations of offices and practice groups with other firms to reflect the strengths of the firm." (My italics.)

Oh, come off it. Strengths of the firm? It makes it sound like a strategic demerger, when it’s anything but. Like Squire Sanders two years ago, Baker & McKenzie realised that Coudert’s saggy business could add nothing to its own, and so it simply walked away from the negotiating table. The time from Bakers rejection to Coudert’s surrender was just two short weeks; there never was any plan B.

Coudert might like to have thought it was "exploring various options", but there were actually no options to take. Bakers is still in the frame for much of the US business, but Coudert – the pioneer of the global firm – could not convince anybody that its global network was worth acquiring. It’s a lesson to any firm that tries to explain away poor profit performance with the excuse that culture, history and workplace environment are more important. If the money ain’t there, the firm won’t be for long either.