I don’t think any of us foresaw how the tech sector would explode, it was the proverbial California surfing – you got on a wave and just rode it. It turned out to be a much bigger wave for a much longer ride than anybody expected,” says Tower Snow, and this turns out to be a typical Snowism. Not many Clifford Chance lawyers speak fluent Californian, but then this Clifford Chance partner is a breed apart from most lawyers.
Even before his acrimonious departure from Brobeck Phleger & Harrison, Snow was an icon. In the 1990s, he transformed the traditional West Coast firm into a technology powerhouse, buying up major advertising campaigns on CNN along the way. But then he was expelled from Brobecks and ultimately led a band of 17 partners to Clifford Chance, in a tale that has passed into legal legend.
Snow’s California tan must have faded in the London rain. Still, all the superlatives bandied around about him – handsome, charismatic, eloquent – are absolutely true. It’s the sort of charisma that cannot fail to go unnoticed by the Clifford Chance partners, who must wonder just how far up the greasy pole the former Brobeck chairman ultimately wants to climb.
To Snow, it is early days for such considerations. He is careful to play down the issue of management politics, explaining that he is just one of 12 partners on the US board, alongside fellow ex-Brobeck colleagues Jim Burns and Mike Torpey.
The big issue for US management at the moment is the New York associate problem. This is the one issue Snow doesn’t really want to talk about, but given his ultimately fatal stance on associate layoffs at Brobeck (he was against them), Snow is an obvious person for associates to want to talk to about their problems. Other Clifford Chance partners, both in London and the US, admit that, frankly, the firm will take whatever help it can get and winning over associates is something Snow is very good at.
Speaking about his time at Brobeck, Snow says: “The question is, what are the hallmarks of a great institution? And if one studies what has made the great businesses of America great, they all share common characteristics. One of these is not only that they are well-run businesses, but that they have immensely strong cultures, free of politics and favouritism, transparent and dedicated to the well-being of all.”
This is probably not the sort of language Snow’s colleagues in New York or London are used to hearing. To the British ear, it also sounds disturbingly like the sort of speech Tony Blair might practise in front of his bedroom mirror. But there is no doubting Snow’s sincerity on this point, or that if he were to be called in to sort out the associate problem, it would be good news for the associates.
Brobeck was ranked right at the bottom of associate surveys when Snow took charge, but by the end of his tenure, the firm was voted as one of the 100 best places to work in the US by Fortune magazine. Snow says: “I was prouder of that accomplishment than of the economic progress of the firm.”
Of the Clifford Chance associates’ memo plastered all over the press last month, Snow says: “I had seen the memo. I give the associates enormous credit for writing it and for signing their names to it. When I saw the results of The American Lawyer survey, I think all the partners in the firm felt that it was totally unacceptable.”
Snow believes that the firm should focus on improving transparency, because, as he says, “if you’re asking people to spend a lot of their lives in a place, they’d better darn well know a lot about that place”.
Of course, Snow wasn’t brought in to sort out the associate problem, he was brought in to sort out Clifford Chance’s US problem. Snow and the other former Brobeck lawyers gave the magic circle firm a beachhead on the West Coast and an alternative flank from which to attack the US market. The lateral hires gave Clifford Chance instant critical mass and a bigger West Coast presence than any of the New York firms. Snow says: “We’re extraordinarily networked into high-tech, not just in California, but throughout the US technology community, and that’s what no other firm has. The only firms that have that are the indigenous California firms and now Clifford Chance.”
Snow says that 90 days after he stepped down as Brobeck chairman, it was apparent that he and his supporters were personae non gratae in the firm. At this stage, he started to consider job offers and talked to Clifford Chance and other magic circle firms. He and his colleagues believed that that there was more chance of one of the UK firms taking a larger number of partners. Ultimately, he did not place as many as he would have liked – at one stage it seemed as though more than 30 partners might move, but in reality this was more weight than Clifford Chance’s London partners could stomach.
He says his aim now is to cross-sell his securities litigation clients to Clifford Chance’s corporate and other departments, using his board-level contacts. He believes that technology companies are easier prey, because they are often represented by regional Californian competitors or New York firms without a real international presence. His strategy is based on a belief that the technology sector is still the financial engine of the US and that technology companies are increasingly international and therefore require a Clifford Chance-style globalised law firm.
He says that there should also be a pay-off for the East Coast corporate practice. The West Coast corporate practice focuses on companies and issuers, while the East concentrates on investment banks. Snow hopes that he will be able to throw attractive corporate deals the way of the banks and get an increased deal flow to New York in return. He says: “We should have a very robust corporate practice in New York and California and be considered one of the top corporate firms in the US, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Snow maintains that Clifford Chance’s Rogers & Wells merger was less of a joke in the US than the firm’s magic circle rivals would like to think. He claims that “over the last five years I’ve gone to many meetings of chairmen and managing partners of major American law firms and I’ve not heard one that didn’t think it was a smart move”. He also says that he cannot foresee a merger between a white-shoe firm and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer et al any time in the next five years, because the older generation at those New York firms simply do not want to go out on a transatlantic merger.
Snow has his detractors, and there are plenty of them at Brobeck who feel the firm would have fared much worse if they hadn’t kicked him out. When he was expelled from the firm they seized his office furniture, some of it from his days at Shearman & Sterling, and had a free-for-all. More painfully, they also seized his partnership capital, an issue that is as yet unresolved.
Clifford Chance got its man, but he still has to prove himself in terms of what he will bring to the firm and, perhaps more importantly, where he wants to be in the firm. Having said that, Clifford Chance is still in its Wild West days in the US. And if you have a desert to cross to the promised land, wouldn’t you want Charlton Heston, or at least Tower Snow, on your side?