The perils of going global

There’s an attempt at lofty unconcern at Simmons & Simmons, but Lovells’ raid on its Tokyo office has made it look slightly more fragile abroad than it would like.

Simmons kicked off a review of some of its international operations over a year ago. Managing partner Mark Dawkins’ analysis of what his firm can afford to do internationally has seen it downscale in New York and Porto – although this hardnosed strategic thinking is ever so slightly undermined by the fact that the firm still has an office in Madeira, of all places.

Losing most of its Tokyo team is, in this context, pretty drastic. Simmons’ conclusion that it would be best served by its joint venture with Tokyo leader TMI Associates is an acknowledgement that it doesn’t want to grow in Japan. But to put all your eggs in an alliance makes you rather vulnerable, as firms from Linklaters to Pinsent Masons can testify.

The battle between the international firms below the magic circle – Simmons, Lovells, Denton Wilde Sapte, Norton Rose – is hotting up. (A revived CMS Cameron McKenna, which belongs in that group, doesn’t quite go in for the lateral game in the same way.) There’s a certain amount of comradeship, but fierce competition too. In Continental Europe and the Middle East there is so much tit-for-tat hiring it’s starting to look like a West End farce.

But unlike Lovells, Simmons hasn’t used a global practice area like intellectual property as a Trojan horse in key jurisdictions. Its international business is predicated on corporate and finance, so it is vulnerable. Simmons is a classic target for poachers precisely because it has enjoyed some institutional success. Even trickier, it’ll always struggle against the better-resourced magic circle firms.

That’s why Simmons’ new tack in China is significant. Having been comprehensively raided two years ago by Fried Frank for its IPO team in Hong Kong, Simmons had to move away from equity capital markets out of necessity. The fact that it is looking to build Beijing via life sciences is a tacit acknowledgement of this change in the air. All international firms outside the magic circle take note: you could do with another string to your bow.