White & Case's European expansion plans have stalled after the collapse of merger talks with French firm Jeantet & Associes and the loss of a key partner in Brussels.
As revealed in The Lawyer, talks between the two firms had already begun to falter earlier this year (The Lawyer, 3 April).
The US firm's talks with the 18-partner Jeantet & Associes ended after 18 months of negotiations because of "cultural differences", forcing White & Case to abandon European expansion.
John Riggs, managing partner of White & Case's Paris office, says the firm will now take teams from other firms, specifically in IT, telecoms and project finance.
The collapse in talks coincides with the loss of a European Union (EU) and competition partner from White & Case's Brussels office.
Christopher Norall, one of the founding partners of Forrester Norall and Sutton, the Brussels-based firm White & Case merged with two years ago, is joining Morrison & Foerster in November.
Of the merger negotiations, Riggs says the talks broke
down because of differences in approach.
"The realisation came from our younger French partners, who are used to a great deal of liberty when they deal with clients," he says.
The older partners at Jeantet are said to have wanted to maintain a strong hierarchical structure, while partners at White & Case were used to having more independence.
However, one local lawyer says it is no surprise that the merger talks fell through. "White & Case is an international well-run firm that has been active in acquisition finance for 25 years," he says. "Jeantet, though, is a domestic firm and, although focused at the top end of the market, it's from a French perspective."
Sources speculate that valuation could have been a problem.
Gross fees at the firm for 1999 were £19.2m, as revealed in The Lawyer (25 September).
Riggs stresses that the talks didn't break down over remuneration. "We hadn't got that far," he says.
However, observers also point to a clash of strong characters
as one of the reasons for the breakdown.
Jeantet is renowned for being individualistic. Another Paris lawyer says Jeantet's managing partner George Terrier, who has spent most of his career with the firm, has had a strong influence on its culture.
Adding to White & Case's problems are rumours that there is dissatisfaction throughout the ranks at its Brussels office.
One Brussels lawyer says
the compensation system brought in by White & Case when it merged with Forrester Norall & Sutton has led to lawyers fighting for work.
"Billing partners get paid more than other partners, and with so many big egos, there are a lot of arguments over who gets the credit," he says.