Here's a question for UK managing partners: are US lawyers better at negotiating European mergers than the Brits? Paris has virtually turned into Wall Street-sur-Seine. Latham & Watkins' opportunism in swallowing the Hamburg office of Gaedertz is being echoed in its current talks with the Paris office of Stibbe.
Unfortunately for those of us who prefer to see a little legal biodiversity, Stibbe's determinedly independent stance is crumbling. But then basing an entire strategy on being anti-Anglo-Saxon was always going to be doomed in the current French market. In Paris a divorce was waiting to happen; the 1997 merger between Stibbe and nine-partner capital markets practice Giroux Buhagiar & Associés was effectively imploding. A number of Giroux partners – Olivier Edwards, Jean-Marc Franceschi, Richard Vilanova and Dominique Berlin – all left for US firms. Patrick Bonvarlet, who went to Freshfields, was one of the few who opted for a UK firm.
Yet despite French lawyers' tardy embrace of globalisation, UK firms have had little joy in merging in Paris. Freshfields talked to Jeantet, Lovells to Stibbe, Allen & Overy to De Pardieu, but nothing came of the discussions. Doggedly, cussedly, UK firms tend to pick off partners piecemeal. Freshfields, Linklaters and Allen & Overy all benefited hugely from the Gide fallout, as did Herbert Smith. Making the most of the running is Clifford Chance Paris managing partner Yves Wehrli, who has hauled the Paris office into credibility with his hires of Marcus Billam and Frédéric Peltier from Darrois Villey Maillot Brochier and Dominique Bompoint from Bredin Prat.
And yet the French boutique is not dead yet. Take those tiny practices of Bredin Prat and Darrois Villey, which regularly advise on the biggest M&As. Just as François Pinault and Bernard Arnault are ranged against each other, so too are their right-hand men, Jean-Michel Darrois and Jean-François Prat, the two best-connected and most influential lawyers in France. It will take a long time to dislodge Darrois' position as favoured adviser to Bouygues, or Prat's relationship with Vivendi or Lazard. Darrois Villey may have shown some verve in hiring Olivier Diaz from Linklaters and Hervé Pisani from Gide, but the Anglo-Saxon line is a convincing one – that the younger partners in these boutiques, however talented, cannot hope to replicate the politico-legal connections of their elders. That intimate, Énarque world is changing; the global technocrats are in the ascendant.