Coudert: living in the past

All central control and no vision. Coudert Brothers has got to be the worst advertisement ever for a global legal model. A firm that prides itself more on its 152-year history than its actual business performance needs a jolt of reality.

The problem is, Coudert’s past is more inspiring than the shards of its present international business. The father of the brothers who founded Coudert was a Napoleonic cavalryman and escapee from the Bastille, and the firm kicked off its New York practice in the mid-19th century by advising the French government. This is all very colourful, but unfortunately the firm’s international model is still aligned with the steamboat and the telegraph.

Despite the fact that it was one of the first US law firms into Moscow, Hong Kong and Beijing, and that the London office was the first-ever multinational partnership in the UK, Coudert cannot hope to compete with White & Case or Shearman & Sterling.

You want a sign of delusion? Here’s one: following the shedding of most of its German practice, a member of the management told The Lawyer last week that the firm would be focusing on its core strengths in Paris, Brussels and… er… London. This despite the fact that the entire London partnership has decamped.

And here’s another: when a US partner, predicting slow death agonies for the global network, called for an orderly dissolution of the firm, the management retorted that Coudert would be saved by a merger.

A merger? With an average profit per equity partner (PEP) of £256,000 in 2004? Even Coudert’s underdone London office outperformed the global average last year, with PEP of £335,000. Who, though, would be so demented as to merge with Coudert wholesale? Even DLA Piper would balk at it. Squire Sanders decided not to. Sources say that Morgan Lewis and Baker & McKenzie are in the frame, but for their sakes let’s hope that Coudert realises that the best option is to sell off bits of the network.

Belgium and Australia are irrelevant for most inter-national law firms, but the New York office would be a useful addition for any out-of-town US firm looking to bulk up in Manhattan – if it wanted bog-standard work at bog-standard profitability. Paris would be absorbed easily into a firm like McDermott, which is hunting for a French presence. About the only office which could name its price would be Beijing.

Coudert, the first global firm, has become superfluous. It’s not much to show for a century and a half of business.