Paul Harter, corporate partner at US-based firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, has been practising law in London for 10 years, yet had never appeared in The Lawyer until last week.
But the UK legal world should be seeing a lot more of the man and the firm in the coming months, since Harter is heading up ambitious plans to expand its practice area to include English law.
The move into local law marks the beginning of an aggressive recruitment drive to add top City lawyers in M&A and corporate finance to its four-partner London office.
The firm will also add expertise in practice areas like employment, intellectual property and tax, both as support for the core areas and to compete for work independently.
Gibson Dunn has had a London office for 20 years. But until now it has kept a low profile compared to some other US firms, which trumpet their antics in the UK.
The firm’s quiet existence has much to do with its policy of not talking to the UK press – until now.
Harter says: “Lawyers have fairly large egos and think more highly of themselves than the rest of the world thinks of them, and they like to talk to the press. It’s something we want to manage.”
But he shows no signs of unease as he talks about the firm’s decision to enter the English legal market.
“One vision of the future is of a relatively small number of premier international law firms operating at the top end of the legal market,” he says.
To be among those firms, it is important to have US and UK capability, Harter believes.
Though a number of US firms in London have embarked on the high profile recruitment of UK lawyers, many of the major US firms, among which Gibson Dunn is ranked 14th in terms of gross revenues, insist they have no intention of bringing UK lawyers into their London offices, opting to continue practising US law only.
But Harter is confident about the firm’s decision to stray from the traditional “US firm abroad” approach. He says Gibson Dunn has “spent an immense amount of time and effort” studying what rival US firms in London are doing before embarking on its expansion.
“Among US firms that are not pursuing a strategy of UK capability, there are those that probably don’t need to, in the short term, because they are very strong in the US capital markets,” he says.
However, he adds: “Whether or not they are going to be forced by market circumstances to reconsider that I don’t know, but I suspect the answer is yes, with the exception of probably one or two at the very top of the market.”
At the other end of the spectrum, there are US firms seeking to merge or to grow their offices very quickly in the UK.
Harter says this presents them with problems in terms of maintaining quality, integrating new partners into the firm, and keeping relations with partners in the US civil.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are UK lawyers who are unhappy at US firms that have chosen to grow more quickly, and probably less discerningly, than we have,” he says.
Prospective Gibson Dunn lawyers will find in Yale and Harvard-educated Harter someone who is realistic about the pressures of practising law, since he came close to quitting law school when he took a year off to work at a practice in Switzerland.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer,” he says. “It was a combination of unsatisfied wanderlust and uncertainty about a career in law at that time.
“But I decided that, even if I didn’t want to be a lawyer ultimately, I should finish law school, and when I went back I enjoyed it a lot more,” he says. “And then you get to a stage in life when you stop thinking about it and just get on with it.”
Harter, who is 41, now says he gets “90 per cent satisfaction” from his job and counts himself lucky.
He believes some lawyers get themselves into practice areas where work is routine and there is little room for personal or professional growth. “When you have done the same thing for a number of years it stops being fun.
“But being in London with a US-based firm there is always room for new challenges because you are developing a practice,” he says.
With the prospect of an increasingly demanding professional life and his induction into fatherhood, Californian-born Harter says he will be extending his time in Europe for a few more years.
But then a smile spreads across his face, tanned from a recent holiday on the coast of Maine, as he says: “But in the end I want to be able to wake up somewhere warm in February.”
Gibson Dunn & Crutcher