Washington becomes firms’ destination of choice

Elite UK firms receive cold shoulder in New York, but Washington DC is on the rise

New York is a difficult beast to break. While US firms can often cherry-pick from the magic circle over in London. Partner moves over the past 12 months have included Clifford Chance structured finance partners Neil Hamilton and Matthew Cahill to Paul Hastings and Sidley Austin, Allen & Overy (A&O) private equity expert Derek Baird to Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer capital markets partner Simon Witty to Davis Polk & Wardell. 

But elite UK firms still struggle to compete with Wall Street’s finest when in New York. Is it time to focus on somewhere more hospitable? That somewhere might just be Washington DC. While Linklaters saw the exit of a New York team including former US chief Larry Byrne to Pepper Hamilton in February, it poached two partners for its nascent Washington office with a pair from Bingham McCutchen in May.

Likewise, A&O lost its former head of US financial services Douglas Landy to Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy in New York, but made a landmark hire in the director of criminal enforcement for the US Justice Department’s antitrust division John Terzaken in Washington DC.

“It’s just more fluid than New York,” said one source, explaining that the capital is an easier place for international firms to have a crack. The Law Society and the UK Trade & Investment have taken note, this year organising a programme of activities in a bid to help UK lawyers get the most out of Washington. This included a networking reception for UK firms, general counsel and members of the ABA Section of International Law at the British Embassy in Washington DC. “There is increased interest in Washington DC with two magic circle firms opening DC offices in the past two years,” said Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff in April.  

And firms are taking note – an insider at A&O said that the firm’s relatively new US managing partner, London capital markets partner David Krischer, is focusing on building up the US as a whole rather than zoning in on its New York office. Watch that space.