With just one office and 200 lawyers, Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz is the odd one out among the Sweet Sixteen. But by sheer force of will the firm has maintained its position as home to the pre-eminent domestic US M&A practice.
“You don’t have to be in every country to be successful,” argues one Wachtell partner. “There are so many US and UK firms that spread themselves thin by setting up offices in many jurisdictions. We don’t need to do that.”
Wachtell’s confidence is not misplaced. Last year the firm won some huge mandates, propelling it into The Lawyer’s US Top 50 (24 March). Among them was a role related to one of the standout deals of the year, the sale of ABN Amro, advising Bank of America on its £10.7bn purchase of ABN Amro’s US banking arm LaSalle. This year a Wachtell team led by Edward Herlihy was called in for an even more high-profile mandate, advising JPMorgan on its acquisition of collapsed bank Bear Stearns.
Not easy to find weaknesses in a firm where average profit is $4.5m (£2.2m), but arguably Wachtell may need to create a more robust management structure than it has at present if, as expected, it plumps at last for overseas expansion.
While Wachtell has been successful in maintaining an exclusive brand with its standalone office in Manhattan, the truth is that the firm has not moved with the times. But frankly, it is hard to argue that this exceptional firm needed to.
Wachtell is rightly proud of the success it has had with its unique strategy, but the possibility of expansion is brewing. Last year The Lawyer (22 October 2007) revealed Wachtell’s plans to increase its presence in the UK in response to an increase in work in European markets. Insiders say a London office launch is on the cards for 2008.
Having an on-the-ground transatlantic presence is more than just a superficial benefit. Firms such as Latham & Watkins and Sullivan & Cromwell have reaped the rewards of developing London offices with UK law capabilities. Wachtell is unlikely to start hiring English-qualified lawyers any time soon, but commercial property brokers in the City might like to put in a call to co-chairman Dan Neff.
If there is one exclusive brand among the Sweet Sixteen, it is Wachtell. In the future Wachtell may be forced to branch out into other jurisdictions. For now, the M&A jewel has an unrivalled presence and is envied on both sides of the Atlantic.