London calling

Peter Wallace has moved to London to improce cooperation between Morgan Lewis’ European offices. But will he be so happy when the sun stops shining?

Peter Wallace has timed his arrival in London rather well. Moving from the Los Angeles office of Morgan Lewis & Bockius to London, where he will be in charge of coordinating the European offices, means that he has gained two days’ holiday – at least in theory.

Good Friday and Easter Monday are not public holidays in the US and the bright spring sunshine outside the office might suggest to the unknowing that summer had arrived in London, so Wallace is feeling quite pleased with his choice.

Of course, later on in the day the grey clouds will roll in once again and London will be back to its normal self. Wallace may soon have to reconsider the open-necked chambray shirt that he is sporting when I meet him.

Wallace is in London as the result of a report by McKinsey & Company on Morgan Lewis’ strategy, which concluded that the firm needed to improve cooperation between its European offices and to install someone whose job it is to think about those issues. Another recommendation is to strengthen the senior US corporate presence in Europe. Handy, then, that Wallace is a senior corporate lawyer – the proverbial two birds.

And luckily, Wallace was keen to live in Europe again after living in Paris in the early 1970s when he did a post-graduate degree in international relations. Not even his wife has objected as she lived in London while she was studying and was also keen to return.

So now we know that everyone is happy, what exactly is Wallace planning to do?

He will work with the managing partners of Morgan Lewis’ Brussels, Frankfurt and London offices to build on the strengths of the various offices. So far, so formulaic. It is a wonder any law firm continues to call in the consultants – the message always seems to be that the firm should build on its strengths and improve cooperation between offices or departments.

Wallace says that he “thinks” the firm would like to grow the Frankfurt office and add other specialisations to its current offering of anti-trust, derivatives, takeover and IPO work. Already the firm has brought in Adi Seffer, an intellectual property partner from disintegrating German firm Gaedertz.

He is adamant, though, that his firm is not going to join the current melee in Germany, where both US and UK firms are chasing after German firms or bits of practices to merge with. But later, he changes his stance to the phrase that even he admits has appeared in every company brochure since the year dot: “We are open to opportunities that would enhance our practice.”

He adds: “UK firms have invaded Germany and picked up a lot of things there but we are happy with where we are.”

Neither is the firm looking for a merger partner in the UK, despite rumours that Morgan Lewis was in talks with Norton Rose a couple of years ago. These are rumours that Wallace says he knows nothing about.

The move to focus on Europe does not come, insists Wallace, as a result of the downturn in the US economy. “Planning [for my move] started in October, before the downturn happened and before anyone was even thinking about a downturn. I think that on the planning horizon, the opportunities presented by the introduction of the euro next year was more important.

“It will lead to greater transparency in European deals, which will mean less risk for companies and therefore more deals. We will see how the underlying economy does but [the introduction of the euro] was an event which crystallised our thinking.”

So given that the impetus for Wallace’s move was the euro, why has he moved to the one European country in Morgan Lewis’ portfolio of offices which will not be adopting the currency?

“This is our largest office in Europe and I think that the senior corporate aspect of the assignment militated my moving to London. We have a strong practice in representing some British plcs in the US and we have a fair number of US companies doing deals over here. The New York, Philadelphia and London routes are the core for those relationships so it made sense to put me in London.”

Initially, Wallace expects to split his time fairly equally between the management side of his job and his fee-earning, but he hopes that as he settles into the new role the management side will reduce and he will have more time for his practice.

So does he admire any of the rival US firms’ strategy in Europe? Wallace pauses for quite a long time before deciding that he doesn’t think so. “That’s not in any way to denigrate the competition,” he says. “I think that Morgan Lewis is a unique law firm and we have our own strengths, and what we need to do is capitalise on those strengths. There are very few law firms which act across the board like us.”

Wallace moved from one of those competitors, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, four years ago. Milbank Tweed has a very strong corporate practice acting for the financial institutions, but Wallace decided that he wanted to work with companies, which is why he moved to Morgan Lewis.

“What I found interesting about the process in the corporate world is to be on the companies’ side and representing them long-term, making long-term contributions. That is an aspect that you don’t have when you are underwriting transactions.” And having started out doing securities work, he soon found out that he preferred M&A.

Wallace says that he is interested in non-zero sum games as opposed to zero sum ones, meaning that he does not like the kind of law where there is only one prize and one victor, such as litigation.

“When I used to be in charge of recruiting and I used to tell law students, ‘If you are a person who likes to lead people to get to a common understanding then corporate work is for you, but if you are more confrontational then go into litigation.'”

In fact, Wallace saw more than enough confrontation for one lifetime in his previous career. In 1968 he graduated from West Point military academy, whose alumni include Norman Schwarzkopf, Dwight Eisenhower and Buzz Aldrin. Unfortunately he graduated in 1968 – the year that the US was immersed in one of the biggest zero sum games of its history, the Vietnam War.

Wallace served in Vietnam for a year as an officer, which was the usual time for a tour of duty. On his return he won a scholarship to study in Paris, after which he taught international relations at West Point but soon decided that academia was not for him.

“I saw law as the practising branch of political science and being a lawyer gave me the chance to get into international affairs in the way that being a professor wouldn’t. I was not really interested in going into government – I saw a fair amount of government when I was in the military,” he says, in a way that makes it very clear that his experience was not a particularly good one.

Wallace does not come over as a military man, although when you know that he once was, you can detect that certain steeliness that tends to be imparted by time in the army. He spends most of the interview in a very un-military slouch and comes over as relaxed, although not as relaxed as his Californian background might suggest.

So having had experience of managing both soldiers and lawyers, which is easier?

Wallace laughs, as he does often during the interview: “You would think that the answer to that question would be quite straightforward. Soldiers are easier to manage because there’s a certain hierarchy there.”

It’s the eternal herding cats problem and Wallace has yet to find out whether US or European cats fall into line quicker.
Peter Wallace
Senior corporate partner
Morgan Lewis