Coudert dilemma: leadership or oblivion

Having tried it on with Bird & Bird, Olswang and SJ Berwin among others, Orrick finally found its London mate last night. And it ended up with Coudert Brothers’ London office. Orrick may not have pulled the most glamorous firm, but at least it’s available.

“This gives us a real platform to take on White & Case and Shearman & Sterling,” claims Orrick European managing partner David Syed, slightly implausibly. Orrick reckons London revenues will top £20m next year after adding the Coudert office’s £9m. That will move it into the top 20 US firms in London, but still some way short of Shearman’s 2003 £53.4m turnover and White & Case’s £51.9m.

It’s a start, but Orrick desperately needs a strong leader in London or it will squander any momentum. The firm reckons the Coudert partners’ practices are “complementary” to its own. Fundamentally, that means the practices are simply different – which ought to ring a few warning bells.

Orrick is trying to build its London reputation on the back of its finance and debt restructuring practices. Coudert has a bias towards projects and slightly unglamorous property work, with a streak of litigation and arbitration.

Of the Coudert partners, Anne O’Neill brings a nifty real estate practice and Peter O’Driscoll brings in a load of bucks as Coudert’s global head of banking and project finance. O’Driscoll was also the driver in bringing in the jewel in Coudert’s rather depleted crown – Moscow. While Coudert will continue its Russian practices from Washington DC and St Petersburg, John Sheedy joins with some key clients to head Coudert’s most profitable European office.

Coudert, arguably the first firm to contemplate globalisation, is seriously on the decline. While Ralph Baxter has been chief executive and chairman at Orrick since 1990, Coudert has been through four chairmen in the last four years alone.

While Coudert’s commitment to democracy is admirable, voting for a new executive board every two years does not provide the firm with any stability. Allowing its partners to vote on every major decision is frankly absurd.

Skip Rankin is the latest incumbent of the Coudert ejector seat. He inherits international offices with high costs and not enough rainmakers. His home town, New York, is not the engine room that is required. The firm has turned its back on saviour by merger and in doing so has alienated many of those who have now decided to leave.

Rankin needs to ditch management-by-consensus or Coudert faces oblivion.