White & Case: no loitering

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  • This is seriously bad advice.

    - If what you need to become Cleary, Shearman or Skadden in terms of profitability is a leaner organisation, a stronger M&A practice, "integration" and internal growth, then you try to achieve just this.

    - Does anyone seriously suggest that a firm like W&C could continue doing headline-grabbing oil & gas deals and killer international arbitratlon and sovereign work if they were to become DLA Piper, Reed Smith or Baker & McKenzie?

    - 10 years ago the mantra of legal publications was that firms like Shearmans, Cleary, Sullivan, Slaughter were doomed unless, of course, they were ready to embrace the UK internationalist model. The future was the Ashurst model. Yep...

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  • "Time to stop aping Cleary and start making like Baker & McKenzie."

    In 20 years, Cleary will still be at the top, along with the rest of the transatlantic elite. But chances are that, the DLAs, the Reed Smiths etc. will not be around anymore.

    Smart journalists will then lecture the world about the "lack of integration", the "excessive growth" and the "accounting firm model" that killed these once promising "internationalist" firms....

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  • @ Ben, @BVI, I don't think the debate over which model to adopt is the biggest issue here. The model is simply a means to an end. (Actually, Peter Martyr's developed a succinct response to anyone raising the Verein topic. He simply says: "Yawn".)

    Still, the Verein has enabled a small group of internationalist firms to seize market share in a way that some integrated partnerships simply have not. The debate over its value is rooted less in organisational efficiency and more in cultural presumptions of what such a model entails.

    For the record, I'm an agnostic on the Verein or any other model; firms adopt a Verein into an existing culture rather than the other way around. You can have an unintegrated firm operating a traditional partnership structure, which was the case at W&C before its conversion to sector-led/regional approach.

    But it's unarguable that W&C has been slower in expanding its global revenues compared to its peers. The point about Cleary - and apologies if this was ambiguously written - was that White & Case may have more to learn from less conservative organisations than from the transatlantic elite.

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  • White & Case has been left behind. Ponderous, navel-gazing management and a lack of strategic ambition. The likes of DLA Piper, Reed Smith and the rest are not the ones in danger of not being around in 20 years…

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  • @Catrin Griffiths
    - The model is not just "a means to an end." If it were easy to grow and strive simply by acquiring existing offices or merging with other firms, everyone would do it, including the elite firms who've been at the top for 30 years. Yet they don't. By the way, CC went down that route: remember Clifford Chance / Roger Wells, the AOL/ Time Warner merger of law firms?? Let's remember that we are talking about global firms that have 1500 or 2000 lawyers already, not pop and mom regional shops.
    - "But it's unarguable that W&C has been slower in expanding its global revenues compared to its peers."
    The problem of global firms is not flat revenue right now, especially in the context of an unprecedented financial crisis, it's profitabilty, flexibility and integration. Piling up lawyers and offices by external growth increases revenues, great, but no one cares in the end except the guys doing revenue rankings in legal publications that clients don't read. And that's why you want to emulate the most profitable firms wordlwide, not the "serial mergerers".
    - "may have more to learn from less conservative organisations than from the transatlantic elite."
    I'm honestly not sure what this means... Learn what? And most importantly, what would anyone in their right mind ever want to emulate Reed Smith rather than Cleary or Shearmans??

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  • PS: Thinking of Latham, for instance, do you seriously believe that they owe their success to years of trying to "make like Baker & McKenzie"?? Come on! They owe it to years of "aping Cleary" and not caring a bit about the rest of the world..
    W&C (where I don't work, for the record) is basically Shearmans, Cleary or Latham with a less preeminent global M&A practice. It's equally strong if not stronger than these 3 firms in finance, energy, international arbitration and emerging markets in general. And M&A being the single most profitable line of work for law firms, this explains the few hundred thousand bucks' difference in terms of profitability. Therefore if you're them, you try to slowly move up the ranks in M&A, while fostering integration and flexibility. Plain and simple. The rest, the Reed SMith analogy, the DLA role model etc., is just plain wrong advice, which doesn't even start to make place. Sorry to be frank.

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  • @BVI - Totally agree with your last post. W&C needs to focus on moving up the rankings in terms of M&A which should bolster their profitability. At the same time, they need to focus on cutting costs, becoming leaner and more profitable to attract the best lateral partner talent. Law firm mergers may work in the short run or to quickly establish a presence in a new market, but there is a high risk of failure with the best partners leaving after a few years. The risks are less with just hiring lateral partners with a book of business, and efficiency and costs can be reined in, which is what W&C is doing.

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  • I worked at W&C for a few years and left for one of the Sweet 16 firms mentioned above. W&C have always done well in their core areas of finance, energy and arbitration, but they lost their way in the last decade exactly because they thought they were more top tier than they really were. Their profitability is way closer to Reed Smith, Hogan Lovells than Clearys or Latham, & they're now being challenged in their marquee practices by exactly the firms mentioned. Sayng they could be like Clearys or Latham if they had a bit better M&A business is like saying we could all look like George Clooney if we looked more like George Clooney.

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  • W&C has lost reputation in several markets becuase of many senior lawyers and partners leaving. The reduction in quality, and the loss of recognized names, is readily noted in the market. The issue of its declined has more to do with management (HV) not having its pulse on the real goings on in the various offices.
    Oh by the way, Duane Wall was a gentleman and had a very good feel for what was going on - HV is over his head. The divisions that occurred came in with HV, and it'll take years for the firm to recover if at all.

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  • True about W&C losing out in terms of top-tier work to the higher ranked firms. HV needs to get his eye on the ball and assert more control and leadership of the firm. A nice guy but lacking the clear vision, ambition, and focus of a great law firm head. W&C needs to more aggressively go after the clients, invest in increased marketing and branding in order to compete. Their current strategy looks like it is to double-down on emerging markets like China and Brazil to catch their boom in the next decade. A good strategy, but it shouldn't be a trade-off to aggressively expanding client relationships in the U.S. or U.K.

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  • I am a little puzzled by the two comments above ("W&C has lost reputation in several markets" and "W&C losing out in terms of top-tier work to the higher ranked firms"). Sounds like typical law firm-bashing to me, which is all too common on websites like this one.
    I am an emerging markets' lawyer myself, and I see W&C all over in the Middle-East, Africa and Eastern Europe, doing the largest deals. I can't speak about Brazil, Russia, China and Latin America - where I don't practice - but my colleagues tell me that W&C is very much on top of the market in these jurisdictions as well.
    W&C is not huge on London/NY M&A work and, it seems to me, not even trying to compete with Cravath, Davis Polk and the likes. But the future is not all about NY and London, far from it...

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  • PS: this is also why I disagree with the George Clooney analogy above (although it's funny): yes, moving up the ranks in M&A in the US and Europe is exceedingly difficult, and saying that one could have a top M&A practice if only one had a top M&A practice is preposterous. However, moving up the M&A ranks wordlwide possible if one targets the key markets of tomorrow, and I think that's what W&C is doing. Seems like the right approach to me.
    Remember also that a few years back it was trendy to bash Shearman & Sterling, who was so stuck-up and who seemed to be missing out completely on the new markets. Now S&S is very much back in the game and has even managed to increase profitability to record highs. No one is bashing S&S anymore.
    I am an emerging markets lawyer by trade and hence I am probably biased, but if I had to bet on which firms will be dominant in 10-15 years, as far as US firms go I'd bet on Skadden, L&W, W&C and S&S. Would also probably bet on Cleay as well, but they don't have the same breadth of practice and coverage.

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