Latham vies for litigation top spot

John Hull

The Lawyer’s annual review of the top 50 litigation practices by revenue, published next week (7 December), will be primarily a US affair. Last year only four UK-headquartered firms made the list: Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Herbert Smith.

The updated table is still being finalised, but last year’s second-placed firm Latham & Watkins will no doubt be hoping that the growth in its disputes practice will allow it to go one better and replace Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom at the head of the table.

Latham may have endured a torrid time this year, laying off 440 lawyers and staff in February, but its litigation practice appears to be in rude health.

In London particularly Latham’s disputes group is booming. According to public international law group London head Robert Volterra, the additional lawyers in his team are working flat-out, ­operating at 130 per cent of their billable target of 1,900 hours.

“My practice in arbitration has had an enormous increase recently,” says Volterra. “We’ve doubled in size over the past 12 months.”

At a time when other parts of Latham have been slimming down, the London litigation department has been growing ­significantly. How is this for a ­statistic – the firm says the team has grown by roughly 800 per cent in headcount over the past five years.

One of the catalysts for that growth was the arrival in 2005 of former Richards Butler (now Reed Smith) partner John Hull, who joined to spearhead a commercial litigation team in London. Earlier this year Hull made another move, this time into management, when he stepped into the shoes of David Mulliken as, effectively, European litigation head.

Hull’s official role is global ­litigation vice-chair, one of three at Latham (the other two are Janet Link and Sean Berkowitz) but he is the only one outside the US.

“My objective is to build out practice areas where we think we can attract the best-quality work, rates and clients,” says Hull.

Currently that includes ­securities litigation, antitrust, IP and contentious employment, as well as the international public law work and arbitration handled by ­Volterra’s group.

White-collar crime in particular has been identified by Latham as an area for ­international growth.

“It’s an increasingly important area,” confirms Hull. “We’re ­making enormous investment in this area.”

Shortly after Hull’s arrival at the firm Latham made one of its ­highest-profile hires when it brought in Berkowitz, best known as the lawyer who headed the US Department of Justice’s (DoJ) investigation into, and ­prosecution of, Enron.

In recent months Latham’s global litigation practice has ­continued to hire a string of high-profile lawyers, many from the US federal government, to ramp up its capabilities in white-collar fraud. They include Barry Sabin, a ­former deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the DoJ and now a ­partner in ­Washington DC; ­Gregory Garre, the 44th US ­Solicitor General and now global co-chair of the firm’s Supreme Court and appellate practice group; and Alice Fisher, also an ex-DoJ lawyer and now co-chair of the firm’s white-collar group.

“These are high-level former government prosecutors and ­regulators who are a tremendous asset to our practice and to our clients,” says Hull. “We’ve invested in them and it’s paying off.”

Latham’s figures to the end of September 2009 show a 28.1 per cent increase in white-collar ­revenue globally.

Meanwhile, the proportion of revenue generated by the ­litigation group as a whole, based on the most recent full financial year, rose from 35 per cent in 2007 to 36 per cent in 2008.

owever, as the firm’s total revenue in 2008 fell by 4 per cent to $1.92bn (£1.15bn), the proportionate rise in litigation revenue translates into a slight drop, from $700m to $692.3m.

“In 2008 we saw the start of probably the biggest recession since the Second World War, with clients cutting legal spend, even including litigation spend,” says Hull. “So in that context to ­maintain revenues is an ­achievement.”