HSBC snubs Norton Rose for Freshfields

Freshfields and CC scoop trophy clients as magic circle sews up banking M&A

Norton Rose and Lovells have become the latest casualties of the magic circle’s increasing dominance of the banking sector.

Norton Rose has lost its monopoly over trophy client HSBC Holdings, having missed out on a string of key instructions from the clearing bank to Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Meanwhile, Clifford Chance has confirmed its position over Lovells as Barclays’ primary legal adviser.

Earlier this month, Freshfields advised HSBC when it paid $1.1bn (£590m) to double its stake in Ping An, China’s second-largest life assurer. Norton Rose, which historically advised HSBC on virtually all of the bank’s corporate work, advised selling shareholder Morgan Stanley.

But in the past 12 months, the magic circle firm has also beat Norton Rose to two other key roles for HSBC. Freshfields advised the bank on its acquisition of a 19.9 per cent stake in Bank of Communications, China’s fifth-largest lender, and is also understood to have been instructed on a potential multibillion-pound counter offer for Korea First Bank.

During the same period, Norton Rose has advised HSBC on just one publicly announced deal – the acquisition of Marks & Spencer’s financial services arm.

Freshfields has been targeting HSBC in Asia for some time to try and take advantage of a perceived weak spot in Norton Rose’s relationship with the bank.

Norton Rose lost its place on HSBC’s Hong Kong panel following the termination of its joint venture with Johnson Stokes & Master (JSM) in 1998. Despite Norton Rose’s return to Hong Kong in 2002 and its return to HSBC’s Hong Kong panel later that year, rival firms have been trying to cosy up to the bank.

Norton Rose Asia managing partner David Stannard denied that the firm’s relationship with HSBC had weakened. “We work with HSBC on a regular basis and have been advising the bank on a number of deals that aren’t in the public domain – it’s unfortunate we’re unable to disclose that information,” he told The Lawyer.

Norton Rose’s relationship with HSBC is beginning to mirror that of Lovells’ links with Barclays. In 2000, Lovells advised the bank when it bought Woolwich Building Society. But more recently, Clifford Chance has become Barclays’ adviser of choice on its own account work.