O’Melveny’s strategy flaw

Just a couple of years after its fanfared relaunch in London, LA firm O’Melveny & Myers is looking rather depleted. Was there anything more predictable?

For the past decade US firms have focused on trapping big game in order to make an impact over here. Shearman did it. McDermott did it. Cadwalader did it. It’s the logic of the playground: if you give someone a bag of sweets, they’ll be your best friend for ever and ever.

But very few big-name hires have stayed with US firms. If anything, the culture of the two or three-year guarantee has even created some monsters. I wish I had a dollar for every time a US firm has said that its speculative launch is ‘client-led’. Only in the sense of clients having expressed a wish for English law capability; lateral shopping sprees should be a means, not an end.

The barriers to entry in the London market have never been higher for US firms. The mistakes fall into the following categories.

First, the assumption that a decent US corporate practice means you’ll be competing for the big jobs in London. One O’Melveny partner told us two years ago that the firm was going to take on Clifford Chance in private equity. This was deluded. Even Simpson Thacher doesn’t say that, for goodness’ sake.

Second, the obsession with trophy status. US firms tend to judge a new recruit on the brand of the firm they’re leaving, and there is too little analysis of how a lawyer’s experience and contacts will fit with the US practice. In a similar vein, putting together a bunch of former magic circle lawyers doesn’t necessarily create a dream team. It usually spawns a bitch fest.

Third, the absurd view that internal partner promotions in London are a drain. All US firms are prone to this; but it’s telling that O’Melveny’s best hope in London is Justin Stock, promoted this year and who is already making a name for himself. You can’t grow if you don’t invest. O’Melveny will have to trim its ambitions.