US firms’ reporting season gets underway

It looks like 2005 is set to be the year when unfashionable firms come good, if preliminary year-end figures from the US are anything to go by.

The reporting season is truly in gear. Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you stories on various US firms’ financial performance – and even at this early stage there are clear trends developing.

You’d expect the likes of Shearman, Latham and Weil Gotshal to record solid turnover growth in London. However, UK partners at the elite US firms in London won’t necessarily see much increase in their drawings, simply because of the plummeting dollar. Small wonder that there were fewer high-profile moves from top 10 firms to their equivalent US practices in 2004.

Instead, we’re going to see the Volvo layer of firms – big, chunky and not very flash – triumphantly emerge. Chadbourne & Parke, Hogan & Hartson, Hunton & Williams, LeBoeuf Lamb, MoFo, Reed Smith and Winston & Strawn are all attracting solid lawyers with solid CVs and are all poised to report strong figures, both globally and in London.

US national practices have started to become aggressively expansionist. We all know about Piper Rudnick, which managed a three-way merger with California’s Gray Cary and… oh, some UK outfit whose name escapes me. Its combined figures would take it straight into the top 10 of The Lawyer Global 100.

Reed Smith is also worth noting; its takeover of Warner Cranston was part of a global expansion that is paying off. In The Lawyer Global 100 2004, we noted that Reed Smith’s 2003 turnover rose 29.3 per cent to £270.2m. In 2004 its global fee income rose another 19 per cent, with its UK practice contributing £18.9m to the top line.

Slightly apart from this category, but a firm that most of Wall Street deems unfashionable, is White & Case. It may still have problems knitting together its international practice, but it has had an exceptionally strong year across the board and is motoring in London.

Meanwhile, elite firms such as Simpson Thacher and Skadden are not making anything like the same progress in London, despite a few trophy hires. The internationalist UK practices have always worried about the New York firms and whether they would ever use their financial muscle to raid the City. But as this magazine has argued before, the weird ecosystem in Manhattan means that international expansion is inherently dilutive. The great US elite may end up being way behind the pace.