Olswang’s middle aged spread

Olswang spent its teenage years alternately wanting to be accepted by the City establishment and cocking a snook at it. Always best known for its hip (well, by law firm standards) media brand, its decision to go all-out for corporate, private equity and real estate seemed like borrowing another girl’s lipstick.

Similarly, its opportunistic moves were fabulously on-trend, but didn’t always work out. The Reading office – a spur-of-the-moment buy in the closing-down sale at Andersen Legal – was a jumble of ­practice areas, and nearly a decade on it has only just found a niche as an onshoring base.

The firm’s alliance with Greenberg Traurig ­yielded some referrals, but the fragility of the ­relationship was plain to see when the Miami firm decided to set up in London on its own two years ago.

lswang’s current non-exclusive deal with Cooley may seem like a good match, but there ain’t much passion in the relationship – it smacks rather of the rebound.

Now Olswang is entering a different phase: it looks as if it’s following a strategy rather than ­relying on inherited flair. Perhaps the half-year ­figures that showed Germany and Brussels booming while ­London continued to dip concentrated partners’ minds; 10 per cent of profits to fund international growth is certainly an investment. Although it is at the lower end of what the management asked ­partners to ­consider, the tithe signals a communal buy-in to a vision of a newly internationalised practice. Sure, it’s not much of an outlay compared with Bird & Bird’s, whose Habsburgian mini-empire has yet to repay much in financial dividends but which is way ahead of Olswang in exploring new markets.

Olswang’s decade-long vision of becoming a major player in corporate and real estate is still a little too shallowly rooted for comfort. It has not emulated the success of Taylor Wessing, which pulled off a serious German merger, managed to shuck off its TMT-only mantle in the early years of the past decade and has entered the ranks of the City upper-middleweights. Whether Olswang’s counter-intuitively conservative partnership will pull off the transition to international player remains to be seen. But putting a price on the investment means the partners can’t say they weren’t told.

catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.com; www.twitter.com/lawyercatrin