Focus: Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy

The two biggest names in tech law are now at Milbank’s London office. Can the US firm help them deliver on their vision?

Jacobs and Stait

Jacobs and Stait

Four days into his new job as head of the litigation and arbitration practice at Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, Julian Stait already has some serious business to attend to. Tonight (Tuesday 9 June) is the former DLA Piper litigation partner’s (slightly tardy) leaving drinks.

When The Lawyer meets him, the three-day Tube strike is just about to kick in. Undaunted, Milbank’s newest partner is already showing his admirable resolve by shunning the rush to get home in preference of supping with his former colleagues.

Delayed partying aside, Stait has already started work on more serious business – building a contentious practice at Milbank.

In technology circles, Stait has long been one of the UK’s best-known names. At Milbank he has joined Laurence Jacobs, arguably the best-known and certainly one of the most respected transactional technology lawyers in the London market.

Adding another level of interest to the back story is the fact that the two lawyers’ previous firms, DLA Piper and Allen & Overy (A&O), were ­partners in the world’s biggest-ever technology project, the National ­Programme for IT in the NHS. Now they are partners themselves in the same firm.

On paper, it is potentially a ­mouthwatering combination.

Lucky thirteen

In contrast to the behemoth that is (redundancies aside) DLA Piper, working at Milbank must be a shock to the system for the new guy. The New York-headquartered firm’s ­London office is, in comparison, tiny. Stait is its thirteenth partner.

Still, he is unlikely to be overawed. The lawyer’s track record while at DLA Piper is impressive. His clients included Cable & Wireless, Colt Telecommunications and Fortis; while perhaps most famously Stait led the team advising EDS on its high-profile £700m dispute with BSkyB, which is thought to be the largest-ever technology dispute to hit the UK courts (see Opinion on page 6).

Indications are that much of Stait’s client base is loyal and will follow him to Milbank. In the short term at least, however, there will be a limit to how many of those clients Stait’s nascent disputes team will be able to service.

Certainly a ring around some of Milbank’s technology rivals found a consistent message: for Stait, the most pressing issue is likely to be resources.
“I have so much time for Laurence Jacobs, he’s such a good guy,” says one of London’s better-known technology partners at a rival firm. “But there’s a sense he’s been like a general without an army at Milbank. His move from Allen & Overy reminded me of when John Edwards moved from Clifford Chance to Sidley Austin.”

Another technology partner at a ­different rival firm takes up the ­military theme. “If you’re talking about an army, then I’d say Stait’s come in as a lieutenant,” he says. “Laurence already has several privates.”

Stait, for years one of the top dogs at DLA Piper, might rail at the description of him as a second-in-command, but he has already had to adapt to a shift in his status during his final years at DLA Piper.

His days as the head of a group at DLA Piper ended in 2007, when the litigation group he led merged with Neil Gerrard’s regulatory and ­government affairs team. Only one partner could be chosen to head the new super group, and DLA Piper chose Gerrard. In hindsight, the ­writing was on the wall for Stait’s career at DLA Piper from that day.

“It’s one of the problems of law firm management,” says a rival ­partner. “Top guys like Julian have a highly developed sense of their own self worth.”
There is no suggestion from rivals or from former colleagues that Stait was considered surplus to ­requirements at DLA Piper. Indeed, sources say he is on considerably ­better remuneration at Milbank than he was at his former firm.

But having held such a high-profile position for so many years, it was always on the cards that he would look around for opportunities once his longstanding management roles disappeared. Enter Milbank.

Top at tech

Since Jacobs joined in 2004 the US firm’s prominence in technology ­circles has rocketed. Much of the work Jacobs was doing in relation to the NHS project followed him.

Other clients, such as AT&T, Barclays, Invensys, Royal Bank of Canada and Reed Elsevier, also came on board, while the firm’s connections with the New York Stock Exchange (a relationship that was not exactly hurt by the defection of US partner John Halvey to an in-house position at the exchange) helped secure European work for the client.

In terms of major deals for ­Milbank, a highlight was the $1.4bn (£860m) global IT infrastructure outsourcing deal for AstraZeneca in 2007, led by partner Sean Keaton.

“We’re in a growth phase,” says Jacobs, adding that the non-­contentious side of the business has enjoyed double-digit revenue growth each year since he joined Milbank from A&O in 2004.
“We do already have a contentious capability with IP partner David Perkins,” adds Jacobs, referring to the former Clifford Chance lawyer who joined the US firm in 2003 as head of IP in London. “But globally litigation is around a third of the firm. Now we want to build out the English law capability in the London office.”

The chance to build a practice effectively from scratch was what drew Jacobs (along with Keaton) to Milbank five years ago from A&O.

“The attraction was similar,” Jacobs agrees. “Milbank was and is a global powerhouse in CTO [communications, technology and outsourcing], but hadn’t developed this practice in London, so it gave us the freedom to build.”

Jacobs says the fact that Stait ­covered this area at DLA Piper for years (he was head of the firm’s technology, media and communications practice between 2000 and 2005 before becoming global co-head of the litigation and arbitration ­ practice for two years) makes him “a perfect fit”.

Certainly the pair appear to get on well and are massively enthusiastic about the opportunity to build out a contentious capability that adds another string to Jacobs’ bow. And although they did not actually get to work together on the NHS project, the pair have known of each other’s talents for years.

In for the long haul

Milbank is not a firm known for ­making hasty hires. Stait’s move has been in train for almost a year. Jacobs’ knowledge of his new partner’s track record and obvious respect for what he achieved at DLA Piper will have been instrumental in the move and will now clearly be fundamental in making the relationship work.

“This is part of a long-term strategy,” says Stait. “It’s not just us saying, ‘Oh, there’s going to be more litigation because of the downturn’.”

The attraction of Stait, though, is not only his litigation and ­arbitration skill set. “There may not be that much litigation around at the moment,” comments well-respected IT ­specialist Richard Kemp of Kemp Little, “but we’re seeing disputes and quite a lot of renegotiations and ­midpoint renegotiations, especially in outsourcing deals.

”Lawyers are often the glue that hold it all together when these discussions get a bit shouty. It would be handy to have some contentious muscle.”

Still, the absence of a team with anything like the capability of DLA Piper means Stait would be currently unable to handle another case of the size of the EDS-BSkyB spat.

“It’s one thing to say you have the client base for technology work or outsourcing and so on,” says another rival, “but it’s another to say these clients will automatically instruct you on a dispute. It doesn’t work like night follows day.”

None of which, it should be said, Stait is likely to disagree with. “For me the chance of moving to a firm like Milbank and effectively setting up a team with the support of David and his team from scratch was a ­massive appeal to me,” he explains.

Word is that Stait’s arrival at the US firm has already attracted the ­attention of a disputes team, although the recruitment consultants thought to be behind this move refused to comment.

But the likelihood is that Stait’s teambuilding will begin sooner rather than later, even in a firm as conservative as Milbank. Indeed, ­barrister Stephen Tudway came on board from 11 Stone Buildings ­earlier this month.

So the immediate focus for this new high-profile partnership will be to capitalise on Stait’s dispute ­resolution contacts and the client base he has built up during his years at DLA Piper.

Now is the time to make it work.