What do you call a US firm with one of the largest London offices among its US peers and an ambition to take on UK firms at their own game? For once, the answer is not Shearman & Sterling. I am talking about LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae, a firm with US attitude and UK sensibilities.
LeBoeuf is something of an enigma in the UK market. Compared with those other US firms that have exported their brands to the City, it is one of the few not to concentrate on corporate and finance work. Its bread-and-butter income derives mainly from two traditional sources: energy and insurance. In the mid-1990s, LeBoeuf had some links with EC3, having worked for Lloyd's of London in the US, but its name was far from synonymous with the London insurance market.
The firm opened its UK office in 1995 and immediately made a splash by luring Peter Sharp from Denton Wilde Sapte. It was the start of a number of judicious hires, including former Davies Arnold Cooper managing partner Nik Rochez and Berrymans Lace Mawer former head of insurance and reinsurance David Wilkinson. To what extent, then, has LeBoeuf succeeded in transporting its pre-eminent reputation for insurance work in the US to these shores?
It is difficult to give a definitive answer. It is true that the firm has picked up UK instructions from US clients and been supplied with inter-firm referrals. What is less clear is how persuasive it has been in encouraging UK and European insurers away from their traditional advisers.
To hear LeBoeuf extol its list of UK clients, you would think that it had simply swooped in on the market and gathered up the work. The evidence is less conclusive. Litigation clients won by LeBoeuf's London office include CGNU, Royal & SunAlliance, Lloyd's, Eagle Star Group, GE Frankona, Munich Re, Zurich Re and British Nuclear Insurers. Good on paper, but, anecdotally, a number of insurance partners in the City observed that the firm has still to register on their radar. They should keep their eyes peeled.
By recruiting senior partners from UK firms, LeBoeuf has quickly infiltrated the heart of the insurance legal market. Wilkinson celebrates his first year at LeBoeuf this month. His arrival brought the firm instant gravitas and a bundle of clients. NFU Mutual has had a busy 2001 and Wilkinson has been at the fore, handling a Foot-and-Mouth disease-related case for the insurer. Rochez, too, was accompanied by a capacious client portfolio.
Such stalwarts of the UK insurance market as Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, Clyde & Co, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain and CMS Cameron McKenna need not quake in fear of a US bombardment. LeBoeuf has made solid, steady progress in winning panel places and European clients, but it has not staged an all-out assault just yet.
Instead, the firm seems content to pursue a 'softly, softly, catchee monkey' approach. And it is working. The insurance practice could almost be described as a UK practice within a US firm. Its 22 fee-earners are almost all UK-qualified and generate about a third of the office's total revenue, which last year reached £15.6m. This proportion has risen in the wake of 11 September, but will inevitably even out over time.
LeBoeuf says that commercial work drives litigation referrals rather than vice versa. This allows it to aim not at high-volume instructions, but the more profitable commercial and regulatory high-end work. To this end, US partners Bill Marcoux and Jo Ferraro, both specialists in corporate work for insurance clients, have moved to the London office.
If the aim is achieved, Barlows et al could find themselves crowded further in to a market that makes battery farming look positively spacious.