Brief encounter: brobeck hale and dorr

When Brobeck Hale and Dorr raided Morgan Cole's Thames Valley office to open its Oxford outpost last year, it did not make itself too many friends. Hiring three partners from a regional firm, with whom it had until then worked closely, was seen as dirty tactics, even for a US firm.

It became the first US firm to open outside London. It took on two leading corporate partners in the South East, Joe Pillman and Jonathan Loake, along with Kate Eavis, who until then had together formed the bulk of Morgan Cole's Thames Valley corporate practice.

Brobeck opened in June and have since been joined by six assistants to form a nine-lawyer office, headed by London managing partner Tom Kellerman. London and Oxford, essentially one office, share lawyers.

Brobeck's logic for moving to Oxford was clear. Two leading US technology law firms, Brobeck Phleger & Harrison and Hale and Dorr, saw a move into the high-tech Thames Valley as obvious due to the locale of clients like Oracle, Cisco and Bookham Technology, and with startups from Oxford University.

Joint client Bookham Technology brought the three partners from Morgan Cole to Brobeck in the first place. Bookham, a client of Pillman's since he set up the company in 1988, chose Brobeck in the mid-1990s to represent it on its Nasdaq flotation. Brobeck won out over five other firms in a beauty parade.

Pillman then worked closely with Brobeck, and in 1999 he helped cover the maternity leave of Julia Bracewell, one of its London partners. When the group decided Morgan Cole's strategy was not for them, Brobeck was at the top of the list.

The trio brought a raft of clients with them. Bookham is one of Brobeck's biggest UK clients and floated on the London Stock Exchange for £222.6m last year. Other new additions include mobile data company Screen, mobile phone repairer CRC Group, BMG Entertainment and Oxford BioSignals.

The group's biggest deals include BMG's acquisition of independent record label Cheeky, the disposal of a local electronic publisher for £16.7m, an acquisition for Day Interactive for close to £11m and general counsel work for Bookham.

The group says charge-out rates are different for London and Oxford lawyers. Oxford rates are set at the top of local rates but no higher, according to Pillman, than main competitors Manches and Osborne Clarke. The group say that Oxford-based lawyers are not paid as much as those based in London, where rates are set somewhere between US and London levels.

The team is working closely with the US offices of both their parent firms, and now finds itself with resources in Germany. Brobeck opened in Munich in December 2000.

In Oxford the company has space for 22 lawyers and has aggressive expansion plans. Brobeck aims to develop relationships with local companies like Oracle and Cisco, already big US clients.

Impressive plans indeed, but while Brobeck's Oxford launch may have made a big impact, whether local firms need to worry in the long-term is yet to be seen.