The science of alliance

The upper mid-tier London firms have found a formula in Europe. It’s the alliance. Titter ye not. Yes, virtually every 1990s alliance – Dewey and Theodore Goddard, Nabarro and Weil, Allen & Overy and Gide, have all collapsed. But Alliance 2.0 is a little more nuanced.

After the land-grab in Continental Europe in 2000-01, when many firms, notably the Germans, surrendered their sovereignty for the prospect of more cash or an international platform, Continental practices have been remarkably reluctant to commit themselves to mergers with UK firms. Look at Stibbe and Gleiss Lutz, which remain impervious to Herbert Smith’s whispered overtures. Or the CMS network; it’s no secret that Cameron McKenna wanted to get closer to Bureau Francis Lefebvre and Hasche Sigle, but they weren’t having any of it.

Not that UK firms always do all the chasing. As The Lawyer reported last year, Spanish outfit Rodés & Sala decided to bulk up in Madrid with an eye to attracting a UK firm – which of course turned out to be Nabarro.

Last week I met Nabarro and representatives of its four alliance firms – GSK Stockmann & Kollegen, August & Debouzy, Rodés & Sala and Nunziante & Magrone – and it was clear, once again, that the Continentals have an enormous distrust of monolithic structures.

Just get August & Debouzy senior partner Gilles August on the topic. He can wax lyrical on the philosophical weaknesses of the global model, and he’s not alone in his views.

So Nabarro senior partner Simon Johnston’s comment comparing his alliance to the Slaughter and May model is cute. See story. It doesn’t scare the horses, and that’s particularly important for jittery Continentals raised on stories of perfidious Albion – which in a European legal context usually means Linklaters.

And it’s not just Linklaters that has form in this regard. When Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) ditched its entire European alliance it went on to raid its former allies in Belgium, France and Germany to launch its new offices. About the only new FFW launch not to infuriate its former alliance partners was the one the firm opened in Second Life. Building a European consensus requires you to play a very long game indeed.