Resurgence of corporate sector sees Paris practices think laterally

Since the beginning of 2011 there have been almost 40 lateral ­partner moves in Paris, making last week’s news that three partners were ­leaving Simmons & Simmons for Norton Rose, Shearman & ­Sterling and Fasken Martineau part of a much bigger trend.

The bulk of the hires have been in the corporate sphere. The main beneficiaries – and the main benefactors – are US and UK firms.

Hogan Lovells and Simmons have each lost four partners since January, while Olswang, which launched in Paris in February, and Paul Hastings each hired four.

Norton Rose picked up a trio of laterals in an effort to rebuild after losing a four-partner corporate team last year. Simmons is also rebuilding. Managing partner Thierry Gontard says the firm will focus on its strengths.

So far the large French firms have mostly stayed out of the ­hiring round. There have been no moves from or to Bredin Prat, ­Darrois ­Villey Maillot Brochier or Gide Loyrette Nouel. Hires by August & Debouzy and Lefèvre Pelletier & Associés do not fit into the ­general pattern, which is grounded in a shift in market attitude towards transactional work.

“People are either trying to ­compensate for growth in work or they’re trying to anticipate growth,” says Charles Simon Thomas, a consultant at recruiters Simon Thomas.

Deal activity in Paris has ­certainly picked up over the past few months. After a strong start to the year, when Veolia Environnement announced it was entering an e8bn (£7.04bn) joint venture with the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, several other large transactions have been heralded.

Since the start of April ­chemicals groups Solvay and Euronext Paris-listed Rhodia announced a e12bn merger, while telecoms giant Vivendi is set to pay almost e8bn for Vodafone’s 44 per cent stake in mobile ­operator SFR.

Recent laterals are starting to bear fruit on these deals. Bird & Bird partner Claude Lazarus, hired from collapsed firm Howrey, is advising Vivendi alongside Allen & Overy (A&O). At the magic ­circle firm partner Marcus Billam, who joined from Clifford Chance a year ago, is leading the team. He advised Vivendi at his former firm, although A&O also has an historical relationship with the client.

Despite heightened transactional activity, partners and recruiters agree that this is not the only reason for the laterals trend.

“I used to think that you can’t be global if you’re not strong in M&A; now I also think it’s true in ­litigation,” says Dominique Borde, managing partner of Paul ­Hastings’ Paris and Brussels offices. “People are coming to realise that you need valuable ­people to do that work.”

Borde says the need to expand in litigation and also in private equity work led the firm to hire a team made up of lawyers from Hogan Lovells and Proskauer Rose in February.

Spencer Stuart recruitment ­consultant Emeric Lepoutre points to increased competition. “There are the same number of clients. ­However, the number of law firms opening in Paris has multiplied by three,” he estimates.

Although Lepoutre believes that corporate practices are hunting for “big billers”, many of the big names in Paris are staying put. Perhaps the best-known partner to have shifted firms is Willkie Farr & ­Gallagher’s Laurent Faugérolas, who left for Weil Gotshal & Manges in January.

But it is the younger partners who are more prepared to leave a firm than used to be the case. As the old guard of the French market head towards retirement, this shift in attitude could become the norm rather than a short-term blip.