Will China light SJB’s way to the US?

Catrin Griffiths

The history of SJ Berwin is studded with merger talks. In many ways, Proskauer was the obvious fit. It had a decent position in New York and there was a proper practice match between the two firms in the funds sphere, but negotiations foundered in 2010. It didn’t take long for SJB to return to the table, this time with talks-about-talks Mayer Brown, whose Stateside presence had the added attraction of a chunky Asia practice via its previous merger with Hong Kong’s Johnson Stokes & Master but whose London office would have created too much of an integration headache.

The Mayer Brown flirtation may have whetted SJB’s appetite for Asia, but the US is still the prize. Managing partner Rob Day was explicit about this in June 2011 after the Proskauer talks halted, when he told The Lawyer: “Joining strength in Europe with strength in the US makes sense. Accessing the US is a merger-only option.” As much as Norton Rose made the most of its global Verein in order to hook a US deal and CMS is presenting itself as a Euro-Leviathan to open discussions with American firms, King & Wood Mallesons (incorporating SJB, should the deal go ahead) will present itself as the Euro-Australasian firm par excellence. And SJB would even give up its brand to do so.

But I’m not sure that US firms are so ready to be convinced. There is an unresolved issue in doing merger business in China, and that’s cyber-security. Nervousness around this issue at Mallesons was so great that it was agreed prior to its combination last year that Chinese partners would not be in the IT network. Documents and client information are currently shared only between the Australian and Hong Kong partnerships. Good luck with convincing the Americans of the merits of a Chinese deal on those terms.

Will the deal be done? As the Withers-Speechly Bircham vote showed last week, even an apparently well-matched merger can be shipwrecked by culture, and there is no bigger cultural problem than merging with a Chinese organisation. I wish SJB well, but on paper this deal could either be genius or a nightmare. Either way, Rob Day, who has had to put up with a lot in the past five years, deserves a prize for sheer stamina.