Eiffel power

Now that Orrick chairman and chief exec Ralph Baxter is sitting pretty in Paris, an English tie-up could be just around the corner. Dearbail Jordan reports

It has taken some time, but at long last Ralph Baxter is a happy man again.

Last Monday the chairman and chief executive at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe visited his Paris office safe in the knowledge that the lawyers were now finally partners in the West Coast firm.

It has been 11 months since The Lawyer revealed that Watson Farley & Williams‘ Paris office was about to merge with Orrick. And what followed, in terms of negotiating the terms of partners’ exits, can only be described as fraught and tense.

But as David Syed, former managing partner at Watson Farley’s Paris office, pops into the meeting room to say goodbye, it is obvious that it gives Baxter great pleasure to shake his hand and call him partner.

Orrick marked the official opening of its French office, its first site in Continental Europe, on 4 November by beaming a webcast of its entire San Francisco office holding a banner which read ‘Bonjour Orrick Paris’, while everyone at the firm’s 12 worldwide offices were treated to a croissant for breakfast and a pin badge of the French flag.

Baxter is too much the gentleman to divulge the gory details of the delicate negotiations between the two firms, but the feeling of relief is evident from his composure, although he does admit that he did “have an emotional moment”.

“There were certain terms of the deal that couldn’t be determined until 31 October. But there was a moment on that day when I knew the deal was done,” he explains. “It was very early in the morning in California and I had a profound personal sense of relief – of achievement and happiness that we’d done it.”

Looking at Baxter, his laid-back manner seems at odds with the idea that he could become ruffled by anything.

Talking about his succession to the role of chairman, which he took up in 1990 from corporate partner Peter Lillevand, any pause for thought he may have had is soon quashed by his quiet confidence.

“I literally spent a number of days thinking about law firms and just thinking about if this was the right thing for Orrick,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about taking on the personal risk that I might not do well; rather, it was about what it would mean for the firm. But I couldn’t think of anybody else that could do it better and the partners wanted me to do it.”

At the time Orrick was a mere slip of a firm, with 230 lawyers. However, it is down to the fact that the firm has gone through a careful and well-thought-out strategy – with much reference to James C Collins’ book Built To Last, a guide to what makes a great company that Baxter constantly enthuses about – that the firm has grown to the 640-strong practice it is today.

Not that Baxter is averse to taking the odd risk.

Back in 1999, the firm identified Silicon Valley as the next area of growth and, as a ruse of making a speedy break into the area, Orrick established a joint venture with then darling of the dotcoms Venture Law Group (VLG).

The plan served Orrick well. VLG concentrated on nurturing the many start-ups being born around that time, and once the companies had grown to a sufficient size, hopefully achieving a successful flotation along the way, Orrick would take them on as a client.

Baxter calculates that the relationship has yielded revenues in the “eight-figure” region, although he does admit that the heady days of technology growth are now somewhat stunted.

“We did penetrate the market a lot faster than we would have, and a lot of work was generated through working with the blended teams,” he points out.

Baxter is at pains to emphasise that the firm is still involved in a joint venture with VLG and that both practices still meet once a month to “brainstorm”.

But even he has to admit that in terms of the dotcoms, things ain’t what they used to be. However, he says of the venture: “So long as it’s mutually beneficial and whatever costs there are are balanced, then we want to continue with it.”

Would he ever consider merging VLG with Orrick, since both work so well together? “I’d never rule anything out,” he replies, “but it’s not what VLG set out to do.”

With Orrick’s focus on finance, as exemplified through its acquisition of the Paris team, it is doubtful that the firm would go back to the strategy of bolstering its technology expertise, which it seemed so intent on a couple of years ago.

In 2000 the firm was engaged in merger talks with the UK’s Bird & Bird. At present Orrick is intent on building up its UK practice, and while Baxter speaks with nothing but respect for Bird & Bird, it is nevertheless clear that the firm’s slant on IT is now not as attractive as it had been.

Baxter says: “For the moment we’re less focused on investing in a major way in the technology sector. I don’t think it’s likely that we’d resume talks with Bird & Bird soon.

“If we were going to get into discussions with a UK firm, it’s likely that they’d have a broader sector focus than just technology, and certainly, we’d be interested in a firm that had deep finance capability.”

Somewhat coyly, Baxter refuses to divulge exactly who he has been talking to in the UK market, although he does admit that prospective partners seem to be more interested in joining Orrick since it finalised its Parisian coup.

Indeed, with the Paris office’s client list, which includes Vivendi Universal, Renault, BNP Paribas and France Telecom, no wonder UK lawyers are suddenly curious.

“We think that now, based on what we’ve learnt in France, there’s great opportunity on the Continent of Europe for the expansion of the kind of law practice that we want to have throughout the world,” says Baxter.

But to achieve this, would he ever go through the minefield he has just endured in France?

“I don’t believe that we’ll ever have to do that again because we’ve learnt some lessons,” he says.

Which are? “We have much more confidence in our ability to do a deal like this, and I think we’ve learnt that we need to be more deliberate in the methodology, in the tactics of getting it done.”

Which is basically a nice way of saying that Orrick needs to put its foot down sooner in a complicated situation like this. But it is characteristic of Baxter to be diplomatic. And after finally tying down Paris, I think he is just too happy to gripe.

Ralph Baxter
Chairman and chief executive