SJ Berwin’s Statesmanship

You can’t fault Ralph Baxter’s tenacity. It’s a standing joke among managing partners that at some point they will have received a call from the Orrick chairman, but a decade on from its failed talks with Bird & Bird the US firm’s obsession with completing a London merger has still never been realised.

So SJ Berwin’s willingness to engage with the US firm is Baxter’s best chance of a European deal since Orrick took over Düsseldorf’s Hölters & Elsing two years ago.
At the moment the SJ Berwin strategy committee is still trying to keep its options open, but it is clear that the US has become an imperative. The moment it opened in Asia and Dubai and ditched the ’European law firm’ tag, it was inevitable that it had to confront the US question; once a firm decides to operate in a global market, the issue of transatlantic capability immediately raises its head.

Look at Ashurst: like SJ Berwin it spent a decade defining itself as a European firm. Then it started investing properly in Asia and the Middle East and ended up taking a team from its former ally in the US McKee Nelson – although the jury is still out on whether that piece of opportunism will pay off.

The task for SJ Berwin is to investigate whether Orrick is a coherent whole or merely a series of eye-catching moves. Orrick tends to take over firms with good heritage brands but whose glory days are behind them – think Hölters and Paris-based Rambaud Martel. An unkind reading is that SJ Berwin, which has never been well-hedged against economic downturn, is a ­distressed asset, but the firm is hardly a basket case. Indeed, it is very much in SJ Berwin’s ­interests to let everyone believe that it’s a
three-horse race; if you’re on the auction block, you might as well create a bidding war.

The list of its three current favourites – Orrick, Proskauer Rose and Goodwin Procter – suggests that the strategy committee will only look at firms with minimal overlap internationally in pursuing a merger that will cause little disruption and allow the firm to operate as normal. This belief is ­misplaced: if the talks continue SJ Berwin’s ­management will have to placate a lot of unhappy Continental partners.