Fried Frank: a series of unfortunate events

Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson’s international ambitions have a habit of being thwarted. This is the firm that almost tied the knot with Ashurst back in 2003, only to be denied at the altar by quibbles over remuneration and power.

Fried Frank: a series of unfortunate eventsFried Frank’s global ambitions left in tatters

Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson’s international ambitions have a habit of being thwarted. In case it had slipped your mind, this is the firm that almost tied the knot with Ashurst back in 2003, only to be denied at the altar by quibbles over remuneration systems and power-sharing.

Since the collapse of that deal, the New York-headquartered firm has ever so slowly extended its international network. But its pretensions to global firm status have taken significant knocks recently.

Over the past few months the firm has seen the departures of three major teams of lawyers – two in Paris and one in Frankfurt. Rumours are also circulating about the success (or rather lack) of the firm’s office in Hong Kong.

Asia managing partner Huen Wong is set to become president of the Hong Kong Law Society later this year, raising questions about his future commitment to the firm, while there are mixed reports over how well the former Simmons & Simmons lawyers who joined in 2006 have bedded in.

“It appears there’ll soon be no one left in the overseas offices of Fried Frank,” comments one ­former partner.

Fried Frank’s 2008 fiscal year closes at the end of this month. The signs are that its results will be okay, but not spectacular. Coupled with the harsh economic climate, a poor financial year is unlikely to convince the firm’s US partners that it is worth staying committed to costly investment outside its New York base.

“International strategy has been something of an issue at Fried Frank for years,” says one New York recruitment consultant. “My assumption is that some of its ­corporate work has dried up and they might be pulling in their horns a little bit.”

Corporate and M&A has long been the core of Fried Frank, although over the past few years it has made serious attempts at ­growing additional areas, such as white-collar crime and securities, bankruptcy and capital markets. The firm also has one of the leading real estate practices in New York.

As far as its overseas practices are concerned, the firm’s recent approach has been to mirror the practice configuration in the US through the hire of teams. But now some of those recent hires have upped sticks.

The most recent was the group of lawyers that included corporate partner Patrick Jais and IP partner Barbara Levy that Fried Frank hired from French boutique Veil Jourde in 2005. The team left for De Pardieu Brocas Maffei last month.

Other international failures include the niche bankruptcy litigation firm Lantourne, with which Fried Frank merged in 2006. In November last year name partner Maurice Lantourne took himself and five associates off to Willkie Farr & Gallagher. They were later joined by Frankfurt-based capital markets partner Michael Schlitt, who joined Fried Frank in 2007 and left last September after only 14 months.

A recurring theme that emerges is that Fried Frank appears ­unwilling to make the strategic investments necessary to build its international platform. In ­Germany, following Schlitt’s departure, the US firm has only two M&A partners (described by one commentator as “rather invisible”) and around six associates. The losses in Continental Europe have the appearance of a change of strategy at Fried Frank.

“Maybe they’ve decided to just have overseas outposts,” says a source close to the firm. “But that’s a completely different business model from building a local office and sourcing work locally. You can’t do that if you don’t have ­critical mass.”

Certainly, having fewer than 10 lawyers in an overseas office is unlikely to convince the firm’s clients that it can handle anything that is thrown at it. But then it is possible Fried Frank is just taking a little pause for breath following a spate of unfortunate adventures in Europe.

“Globalisation doesn’t necessarily have to follow a straight line,” says a US legal market consultant. “It can go in fits and starts.”

Like many of the top US firms, Fried Frank’s New York office is paramount. Plus, the firm is still small enough for its partners to remain largely autonomous, ­operating their own little fiefdoms. The firm is not a large bureaucracy like some of its 3,000-lawyer rivals.

“Success at Fried Frank has never been measured on whether it’s a huge firm internationally or not,” adds the consultant. “It’s whether it’s competitive in the New York market that counts.”

The inference is that the financial results from Fried Frank’s overseas outposts are not strong and the New York partners are suffering as a result. And that said, partners have a limited tolerance for pain.

The loss of lawyers from a couple of faraway cities is unlikely to worry the partners in Manhattan’s ­financial district too much. The ­collapse of another international strategy, should the exodus continue, would be more of a concern.

Fried Frank was contacted for the purposes of this article, but chose not to comment.

Freshfields looks to grow stateside litigation arm

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is targeting a rapid expansion of its new US ­litigation group following the hire last month of three ­dispute resolution partners.

The magic circle firm plugged a longstanding hole in its US practice when it launched a stateside litigation arm (, 22 January).

The cornerstone of the group is the trio of partners it hired in January. Aaron Marcu and Adam Siegel joined from the New York office of Covington & Burling and Benito Romano from Willkie Farr & Gallagher.

The strategic significance of the new group was underscored in a meeting at the firm’s New York office last Tuesday (27 January). Alongside Marcu, Siegel and Romano were Freshfields chief executive Ted Burke, former managing partner and one-time head of litigation Ian Terry, current global disputes head Chris Pugh and the co-head of Freshfields’ financial institutions disputes group Andy Hart.

None of Freshfields’ new recruits would be drawn specifically on whether any of their former associates would soon be joining them, but Marcu indicated that the plan was to build a “first-rate, full-service US litigation practice” that would require significant expansion at the associate level.

“We hope the growth of the team will be rapid, but it’s more important that the quality of the group remains very high,” he added.

The new litigation group will focus primarily on Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement

and federal criminal investigations. It will also conduct internal corporate investigations, advise on compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and handle complex securities litigation.

Freshfields now has seven partners in its US dispute resolution team, including four in the arbitration group headed by Lucy Reed. In
total it currently has around 20 associates in the US disputes practice.

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