English rose may find better suitors at home

Ashurst Morris Crisp has surprised rival City firms by announcing it will open an office in New York. If Ian Nisse, managing partner at Ashursts, is to be believed, the opening will help the firm forge closer links with its US clients.

But since Ashursts has, for a long time, been the subject of numerous rumours connecting it with various US firms looking to gain a foothold in the UK, will the New York office give the firm a first-hand look at potential partners?

There is no doubt that Ashursts is one of the most eligible firms in London. Along with Herbert Smith and Norton Rose, it has transformed itself into a highly attractive prospect for potential marriage partners.

Ashursts has certainly been through the mill. Three years of under-performance in the mid-1990s, failed merger talks with Clifford Chance, the loss of four banking partners to US firm Shearman & Sterling and problems with its IT, the firm looked like the classic crisis-laden law firm.

However, under Nisse it has provided a model in cost control and the restructure of operations.

The partners have done very nicely. According to The Lawyer 100, profits per partner for 1998-99 reached £425,000, up by more than £80,000 on the previous year. And its gross fees topped the £100m mark last year for the first time.

This success is partly the result of the boom in corporate work. However, it is the quality, not the quantity of the work that has been transformed. Ashursts has won numerous pitches and its lawyers' reputation among clients has grown. Now, like Herbert Smith and Norton Rose, it is thought to be embarking on an international merger strategy.

But is Ashursts moving too quickly, spurred on by the Clifford Chance and Rogers & Wells merger? Maybe the home market may prove to be the more lucrative market for a merger in the long-term. A merger with Herbert Smith would propel the firm into the top five ahead of Slaughter and May in terms of gross fees, and on a par in terms of quality of work. Such a force would be formidable indeed.