Change in management structure ‘symbolic’ of new firm culture; firm to target Gibson Dunn, Willkie, Debevoise and Paul Weiss

Peter Martyr has beaten off competition from his fellow partners Peter Rees and Jeff Barratt to become the new chief executive officer (CEO) of Norton Rose, as revealed by lawyernews last week. Martyr has been current managing partner Roger Birkby’s right-hand man for the past five years and has been primed as the natural successor.
Birkby may not be stepping down until the end of the year, but Martyr is ready and raring to go and will step into his new shoes as early as June.
According to Martyr, changing the management structure is as much a symbolic gesture as it is a concrete action. While it broadens the management structure to encompass the whole firm rather than just the London office, it also signifies the transfer of the firm’s focus from national to international.
It is something that all international firms have to go through sooner or later. And while the forthcoming loss of four partners in the acquisition finance group to Allen & Overy heightened the demand for new management in many people’s minds, the process of internationalisation was already well on its way.
In the last 18 months, Martyr has been looking at the development of the international business groups and coming up with a strategy for integrating the network. Integral to his strategy is transferring management from its current London-centric duo to a board that can take the remit for the whole firm.
“What drives me is that I’m convinced that we have a huge amount of unlocked potential. We’ve spent a lot of the firm’s time and money investing in the international network and what we need to do now is make the network work,” he said.
Norton Rose has ex-panded more rapidly than most in the last 18 months. Not only has it acquired a full-service German capability following its merger with the Cologne office of Gaedertz, it has also re-entered Hong Kong, launched itself in the Netherlands and is in talks with Singapore firm Rodyk & Davidson about setting up a local law joint venture. With all this taken into consideration, it is hardly surprising that the firm is crying out for a more international focus to its management.
With Spain accepted as the firm’s next priority, Martyr has also turned his attention to formulating a strategy in the US. While admitting that in the past the firm’s approach to the US has been scattergun, he recognises the need to be more rational about relationships given that Wall Street firms are becoming more rather than less reluctant to invest overseas.
“As the magic circle firms are now perceived to be more competitive by Wall Street firms, we need to try and focus on developing relationships with a number of US firms which have businesses that are compatible with ours,” said Martyr.
It is understood that the four main target firms will be Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, Debevoise & Plimpton and Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison.
In the last year, Norton Rose has steadily turned up trumps, surprising only the most cynical in the market with a string of successes. According to research by The Lawyer, its US group has handled just one fewer Rule 144a equity deal than Clifford Chance. Thomson Financial ranked it fourth for European M&A deals closed in the first quarter of this year. And The Lawyer IPO survey (see page 22) reveals that the firm has made a name for itself advising on investment trust listings.
However, its highest profile success came from its Cologne office, which is involved in the current restructuring of Kirch Group. The firm is acting for a group of bondholders in ProSiebenSat1, a German broadcasting company controlled by KirchMedia.
Understandably, Martyr wants to consolidate client relationships and expand successful relationships so that they encompass all of the offices.
Aside from the international element, another pressing issue he will have to confront is underachievement. The firm has long since recognised its failure to deal with the problem, and the loss of top billing partners Tim Polglase and Andrew Bamber has pushed the issue to the top of the agenda. The accusation that the firm has substituted growth for quality people is gradually growing louder.
Martyr has been on the management board before, which leaves him open to criticism on past strategy, but he is widely accepted as a safe replacement for Birkby. One partner said: “He’s very cosmopolitan and open to change, but he’s also very sensible.”
Put in the context of a firm trying to make its international network work, it is easy to see why Martyr was the favourite for CEO and why he won. Admittedly, he does seem to be best positioned to drive the integration process forward and certainly he has far more clout on the Continent than either Rees or Barratt. However, he will not be able to manage the whole process himself and just as important will be the election and appointment of the rest of the board.
Paul Giles is to be managing partner of Asia and Matthias Kappus will continue in his role as managing partner of Germany. Martyr will be responsible for appointing his deputy and there are still a number of positions up for grabs, including London managing partner and chairman.
The next challenge must be to elect a board that prioritises the shift in focus and allows the firm to move forward. General consensus is that Norton Rose is in need of new and dynamic management. It is on its way to achieving the new – the question, is can it make it dynamic?