It’s been like watching a car crash in slow motion. The news that Chicago firm Altheimer & Gray was about to dissolve – reported on www.thelawyer.com /lawyernews last Friday (27 June) – was simply a more extreme version of the rumours already circulating in the London market.
Ever since Buchanan Ingersoll effectively withdrew from the City, cocktail party gossip was putting Altheimer as the US firm to go next. With a slew of partner departures in the past year, it hardly looked like the most stable place to be.
Outsiders may have sensed impending doom, but there were still plenty of Altheimer lawyers last week who were reeling at the news that the firm was being wound down. The whole affair could make the Brobeck Phleger & Harrison fiasco look like a tea party.
The very day after the decision to dissolve, the recriminations were already starting. The US partners are blaming the European offices for the drain on the firm’s finances. But even if they were making the losses its US partners claim, it should hardly bring down such a substantial Chicago outfit. You rather suspect there’s another reason.
But then, rationality always seemed to be in short supply at Altheimer. The Lawyer was consistently met with intemperate outbursts, threats and insults – hardly the sort of reaction designed to convince us of the long-term health of the operation. (The firm wasn’t helped by its choice of its external PR agency Kysen, which managed to be spectacularly obstructive.) And Altheimer’s European offering was never blessed with coherence. The London office was unfocused and not high-end enough, and the hiring strategy – which included guarantees to partners, some of whom didn’t perform – seemed ridiculously haphazard.
You’d have thought that any of the following basic questions would have occurred to Altheimer’s management at some point: 1. Is there a compelling client need to open in London? (Answer: apparently not.) 2. Is there enough of a war chest to sustain investment? (Answer: apparently not.) 3. Will this office have a practice focus we can build on? (Answer: well… you can guess.)
It happened to Sonnenschein and it happened to Buchanan Ingersoll; London is becoming a graveyard for the grandiose ambitions of regional US players. Whether or not its European network was the flashpoint, Altheimer’s woes serve as a warning to US lawyers: don’t take on the City unless you can afford it.