A year ago, Rodgin Cohen took over as senior partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, saying he anticipated “very little in the way of change of course”.
Hardly. Cohen's reign has coincided with a serious strategic shift in Sullivan & Cromwell's European practice. Last year, the firm elected 14 lawyers to partnership, and no fewer than five were resident in London. It transferred three New York partners – Neil Anderson, George Sampas and Garth Bray – to London, having already relocated competition partner Ted Edelman from the US. Tax partner Willard Taylor was also relocated to the Paris office.
Sullivan & Cromwell had toyed with local law capability before. It had even made a non-US partner lateral hire in Jamie Logie – a former Norton Rose project finance partner. But that pales beside the flurry of recent Continental hires – Jean-Pierre Legall and Gerard Mazet from Jeantet, Richard Vilanova from Stibbe, Wolfgang Feuring from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Konstantin Technau from Nörr Stiefenhofer Lutz.
The recruitment of Feuring was almost inevitable. Not only had he been restless at Freshfields for a while, but his key relationship is with Goldman Sachs – which just happens to be Sullivan & Cromwell's top client. (Watch out for Freshfields' fightback, by the way – it's not about to let the Goldman relationship combust.) On one level the Feuring hire could almost be read as a defensive move by the US firm, were it not for last week's recruitment of Technau. At 39, Technau is serious hot property in German M&A and capital markets, having almost single-handedly built up Nörr's issuer-based capital markets practice in that area – a practice which includes high-yield.
Yet in a sense, French and German capability is the easy bit. The touchy issue for US firms has always been whether to go head to head with City firms and build up UK law capability. Up until now, most US firms have argued that global investment would dilute profits to an unacceptable level. But last year, Sullivan & Cromwell's profits reportedly dipped 2.9 per cent – and this from a firm with such a huge franchise in the US. One wonders whether this might have concentrated partners' minds. That, and the fact that so many investment banks are refocusing on their European operations. Could it be that with profitability in the US practice starting to plateau, Sullivan & Cromwell partners are at last minded to look for growth elsewhere?