Awards preview: US law firm of the year

On 22 June, 1400 people will crowd into the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane for the most eagerly-awaited event of the year. With only one week to go, The Lawyer brings you a sneak preview of the shortlisted individuals and teams

Bingham McCutchen

The London arm of Bingham McCutchen may only make up 2.5 per cent of the total lawyers at the US firm, but the UK office continues to punch well above its weight. This past year saw increased competition from other firms hoping to usurp Bingham’s leading position as an expert in advising debtholders, with a particular specialism for bondholder clients. But the London office saw them off while still managing to land the lion’s share of the year’s complex restructurings and executing them with aplomb. The ongoing Eurotunnel saga, MyTravel, Leeds FC, Welcome Break – all enviable transactions and all driven by Bingham’s small but perfectly-formed London operation.

Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft

Sometimes controversial, sometimes stunning, Cadwalader’s London office always makes people sit up and take notice. As the conservative New York firm’s only non-US office, London’s daring approach to deal-doing makes it a noteworthy contender for this award. As one half of the UK’s leading debtholder advisory duopoly (with Bingham), Cadwalader has proved itself a worthy adversary on its many successes in the past 12 months. Most recently, however, the London office’s banking practice has begun to gain ground, landing a hearty chunk of work for the banks on a number of recent restructurings. With the lucrative collateralised debt obligation market now in its sights, Cadwalader is set to keep the City on its toes.

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton

This was the year that Cleary’s European operation really came into its own, implementing a huge number of savvy strategic moves. With classy new hires in Spain, Italy and Germany, where the firm opened in Cologne, its second office in the region, Cleary has established a high-quality benchmark on which to continue building its premier practice. The German expansion helped land Air Liquide’s buyout of Messer Griesheim. It was just one of a slew of big-ticket deals, so rare in this slow-to-recover market, which Cleary in its quietly confident manner landed in another successful year.

Latham & Watkins

As only one of a handful of US partnerships to rival the top 10 London firms for top-end advice, Latham has worked hard to become first choice for enviable corporate and banking clients. The firm’s sheer spread of work shows that the quality inherent in its US operations is not compromised throughout the rest of its network. Most notable this year, though, was its success in the Italian market, which is ripe for deals, and which were plucked by Latham’s ambitious European lawyers. The buyout of Fiat Avio by a consortium including the Carlyle Group and the bid for Seat Pagine Gialle stand out. While key hires bolstered practices such as private equity and restructuring, and client wins such as the CableCom Group were notable, Latham made much of its strengths.

Sidley Austin Brown & Wood

Sidley goes from strength to strength. With its first-class structured finance and securitisation practice, Sidley is a dangerous competitor of the UK’s magic circle, accomplishing a slew of firsts over the course of the year. Acting for Citibank and Goldman Sachs on the first covered bond transaction in the UK, the first public single loan synthetic commercial backed securities issue in Italy… the list goes on. Against a backdrop of ever-increasing European turnover, rising by 28.4 per cent in 2002 and 20.8 per cent in 2003, the firm is clearly reaping the fruits of pushing its investment into other areas such as corporate and restructuring, bedding down the Budget Rent-A-Car deal.

Weil Gotshal & Manges

It has truly been a triumphant 12 months for Weil Gotshal. After landing a merger with Parisian corporate powerhouse Serra Leavy & Cazals, the firm capped it with one of the most talked about, and envied, lateral hires: private equity star David Aknin. With turnover continuing to motor, London shone, pulling in deal after high-profile deal for clients such as Hicks Muse Tate & Furst and Apax. It was for these two clients that the stellar UK outfit got its second bite of the cherry on the joint private equity house-owned directories business Yell, when it finally made its debut on the London Stock Exchange.