Unhappy endings

It’s ironic that the redundancies in New York this week happened at Clifford Chance, a UK-headquartered firm.

With employment laws in the US such as they are, US firms generally have an easier time of it when it comes to firing their lawyers.

I’m sure Clifford Chance will have followed every HR best practice procedure in the book to the letter: but it didn’t have to.

Unlike in the UK, there’s no statutory provision regulating the termination of the relationship between employers and what over here are known as ‘employees at will’ (which includes associates).

In other words, they’re employed at the will of the business. And at the will of the business, their employment can be ended immediately with no realistic hope of an unfair dismissal or breach of contract claim being lodged.

As former employment partner turned chief HR officer at Reed Smith, Mike Lynch puts it: “In the rough and tumble of big business here, US businesses are probably quicker to terminate people’s employment in instances of underperformance than in the UK, where you have the whole procedure of warnings, reviews and consultation.”

(Incidentally, Reed Smith is now awaiting the trophy for the Most Appearances in one Week in the Blog award).

There is already a ton of HR-related activity at those firms with heavyweight structured finance practices. If it’s not yet reached outright redundancies, then at certain firms there’s a lot of encouragement for well-timed sabbaticals.

The betting is that if you’re an associate in one of those teams right now, US or UK firm regardless, you’ll be looking over your shoulder for signs of the Terminator.

Knowing me, knowing you
7 November 2007

It might be bonus season in New York, but it also appears to be time for the partnership retreat.

Reed Smith’s management board is in town, most likely to quiz each other over how to pinpoint its next merger partner. Apparently the firm’s appetite for growth in New York isn’t exactly a secret internally. As one headhunter put it yesterday: “Everybody knows that’s what they’re looking for, including the guy who serves coffee downstairs.”

Latham & Watkins partners are heading to Arizona later this week to figure out how it can carry on being everyone’s most successful out-of-town firm.
Last week, meanwhile, WilmerHale partners converged on the JFK Library in Boston for cocktails and a spot of strategic natter.

The actual value of these events is debatable. Take Latham’s bash at the Biltmore. Any partner that doesn’t have a business commitment is expected to be there, but on the other hand, if you don’t show no one’s going to know. Or, probably, care. Unless you’re speaking, I suppose, in which case they might notice. (Note to Bob Dell – remember to turn up.)

Although there’s no hard and fast rule about when these events take place (Latham has two annually, in November and March), having them at this time of year allows firms to both look back on the year that’s almost done and forward to the new one around the corner.

But what really matters is networking. As law firms get ever bigger, this is the one time in the year when a firm’s partners can get to meet their opposite numbers in increasingly far-flung offices. At WilmerHale’s bash last week around 300 of its 320 or so partners showed up to hear managing partners Bill Perlstein and Bill Lee give a state of the nation address.

Quite who was running the firm isn’t clear, but I’m sure they had a good party. Which, as you know, is what counts.

New York marathon
5 November 2007

This week promises to be a big one for Reed Smith. The firm is still flush from somehow persuading Richards Butler’s mega-profitable Hong Kong outpost to join its ever-growing global party. Nobody – including me – gave it much of a chance but, against the odds, Reed Smith pulled it off.

Now, as Reed Smith’s global board descends on New York this week to talk strategy, the firm will move into more space in its Lexington Avenue offices. Last week when I popped by, I couldn’t hang my coat up because all the cupboards were stuffed with furniture, so it obviously needs the extra square footage.

Then next year Reed Smith will be on the move in London as well, taking floors 10 and 11 in Broadgate House by Liverpool Street station (making it neighbours of Ashurst, Mayer Brown and Herbies, to name just three).

The moves on both sides of the Atlantic are a statement of intent. In London, Reed Smith’s merger and recruitment activity has got it up to around 400 lawyers.

In New York, appropriately enough, the growth plans are, if anything, even more aggressive. According to managing partner Greg Jordan, the next six months will see Reed Smith become “materially bigger” in Manhattan.

Jordan describes his firm as being in a “transformative” period. Which, apart from the obvious (ie, it’s growing and therefore changing), means Reed Smith is looking to recruit a different category of lawyers from in the past and transform its client base in the process.

It is targeting associates or junior partners at top firms with between eight and 12 years experience. Not rainmakers, in other words, but top-quality future stars with potential to become rainmakers.

In doing so the firm is looking to take advantage of the partnership bottleneck at New York’s leading firms. What is a major problem for these firms is a huge opportunity for Reed Smith, goes the thinking.

Which is fine, but of course Reed Smith is hardly alone in targeting this next generation of talent. Jordan would be the first to acknowledge that if his firm’s strategy is to be a success, Reed Smith needs to be in a position to provide the right opportunities for New York’s top young lawyers. That means introductions to top clients, major banks and leading corporates.

The move to new offices is effectively a promise of quality work. What Jordan and his partners have to do now is deliver.

Matt Byrne, associate editor

To read Matt’s column from the latest edition of The Lawyer, click here.