Can Bellamy hire steer Linklaters’ competition team into the limelight?

Linklaters’ competition team into the limelight?” />London’s most notable competition hire of recent times will be taking up residence in Silk Street any day now.

Sir Christopher Bellamy, former judge of the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT), is due to start work next week as Linklaters’ newest senior consultant.

Although Linklaters is by no means the only firm to look to bolster its competition team by taking on senior officials, Bellamy’s appointment has had many in the City scratching their heads. Just what could he offer Linklaters’ clients?One head of competition calls the hire “completely bizarre”, while another says the expectation had been for Bellamy to become a judge in one of the European courts rather than go into private practice.

But there are obvious advantages to bringing Bellamy into the Linklaters fold. With a view to the firm’s US clients in particular, being able to showcase a former judge is a real boon – and let’s not forget that, of late, Linklaters has been focusing on building up its antitrust team in New York, so the move is vital if the firm is to service global clients on a global basis, as its strategy famously trumpets.

Partner Gavin Robert admits: “I think in the US there’s a greater tradition of people coming from regulators and even former judges going into private practice. There’s a greater tradition of clients seeing the value of such individuals, but we’re confident that our other clients will quickly see the value of Sir Christopher.”

If Bellamy was going to go into private practice at all, Linklaters was the obvious choice. His relationship with the anchors of the competition team, Bill Allan and Tony Morris, goes back decades, and he used to be the barrister of choice for the team in contentious cases.

Moreover, his personality is a good fit. He is widely regarded as a technical and intellectual lawyer – as a sweeping generalisation, a category that most Linklaters London-based competition partners fall into.

There is, however, an element of Linklaters playing catch-up in hiring Bellamy. After all, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer lured Margaret Bloom, a former director of competition enforcement at the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in 2003. Freshfields then stole some of Bellamy’s thunder by announcing that it was also taking on the dynamic and respected Simon Priddis, also from the OFT.

Generally, public officialdom has become a favourite talent pool for City firms. They are, as Robert accurately points out, taking a leaf out of the book of the US firms’ hiring policies.

In Bellamy, however, Robert and Allan see someone “a bit different”. That he certainly is. Bellamy’s a unique personality on the competition circuit and he is renowned for his colourful judgments.

A barrister specialising in competition said Bellamy’s hire was an attempt to boost Linklaters’ contentious practice, which has suffered from a lack of exposure of late.

To speak to some rival partners, one would think that a competition practice founded on a steady flow of merger rather than contentious work was anathema. But in reality the most respected competition teams in London must rely on bread-andbutter work from their corporate departments. At corporate heavyweights such as Slaughter and May and Freshfields, undertaking antitrust work for big-ticket M&A is a must.

So why the derisory tones when one asks for opinions on Linklaters’ competition team in London? Inevitably, the response garnered is that ‘they’re just an adjunct to the Linklaters M&A machine’.

Is that fair? And more to the point, is there anything wrong with that?Linklaters’ competition team is well aware of its reputation. Robert says: “The figures simply don’t bear it out. While around 50 per cent of what we do is merger work, the other half is behavioural.”

And in that latter half, Robert lumps in state aid, cartel work both in the EU and in UK-based inquiries, and abuse of dominant position.

That might be a striking set of statistics for some. One rival partner points out that, by sheer numbers alone, merger work must account for the bulk of competition teams’ files. “There are roughly 2,000 merger cases a year in Europe,” he said. “But the EU will only run 20 cartel investigations at any one time.”

In more ways than one, the London-based competition team is adept at beating the Linklaters drum. Ask if the competition team sources its own clients rather than relying on those of the corporate department and they will reply that there is no need to. Linklaters’ strategy prescribes that the team works for a core group of key clients across the globe and services their every need.

Linklaters partner Allan says: “We wouldn’t, as a matter of a strategy, target new clients. When we talk about standalone work, it might be work for a client who’s already an important client of the firm but who we’re not currently advising on a merger.”

A case in point is the Competition Commission’s investigation into supermarkets, where Linklaters is representing Sainsbury’s.

“It’s a topical and obvious example,” says Robert. “Sainsbury’s is an important client and it’s strategic to the client to be doing this kind of behavioural work.”

In this respect, fairly or unfairly, the perception is that the team is still living in the long shadow of David Hall. Hall, the former head of competition, was widely respected in the City and credited with giving Linklaters one of the finest competition practices around under his watch. He also forged close relationships with clients such as De Beers, which still use the competition team.

Allan is part of that legacy and, along with Morris, one of the last of Hall’s generation. Although Allan stepped down as head of competition in 2004, he is still very much seen as the figurehead of the group.

“To see me as anything more than a figurehead – whatever that means – is to do the rest of the team a great injustice,” Allan deflects diplomatically.

Despite his serious illness a couple of years ago and his lecturing responsibilities at Cambridge University, Allan is adamant that he is not retiring anytime soon. Which is all for the good.

Michael Cutting, the current London head, is esteemed to be a “good, technical lawyer” by his peers, while Alec Burnside and Gerwen van Gerven are joint global heads.

But what of the next generation? Robert is widely tipped to be the most able, and the most visible, of the partners in their 30s. For now he is giving no inkling that there are succession issues. “Neither I nor any of my peers have even given any thought to the matter,” he says. For Allan’s part, he says Robert could do the job as well as anyone else.

There has obviously been investment in the team’s future. For a team of 30 in London, the promotion rate has been steady. In London one partner was made up in 2005 and one was brought in laterally. In 2006 Nicole Kar was promoted, in addition to two in Europe.

And the competition team has mirrored Linklaters’ general efforts across the Atlantic, with some key lateral hires that have given the New York office its first, essential, antitrust capability. Tom McGrath was promoted to partner on his arrival from Shearman & Sterling in 2005 and last October’s 16-lawyer raid on White & Case brought in additional antitrust litigation expertise.

But it is Bellamy that all eyes will now be upon. Allan makes the point that most of Linklaters’ contentious work cannot be talked about; the better job one does in behavioural cases, the less the public hears about them. Let’s hope, therefore, that Bellamy’s arrival gives the contentious side of Linklaters’ practice some much-needed exposure.