UK firms do not have a manifest destiny

Much has been written in recent weeks about UK firms mergers or plans for merger. This has often been couched in terms of firm's racing to become the "global law firm for the 21st century" or other such spin.

This merger race has been led by the big UK firms with even the mainstream media devoting space to Clifford Chance's worldwide aspirations. Even lawyers started to believe the hype that "the British were coming". But before the celebrations had finished Mayer Brown & Platt managed to dampen the fireworks by landing one of their top US lawyers as general counsel at British corporate giant GEC.

UK firms have been content to dismiss the London offices of the US giants as peripheral to City activity, mainly concerned with servicing the needs of chauvinistic US companies. But in recent months The Lawyer has run many stories about firms such as White & Case, McDermott Will & Emery and Weil Gotshal & Manges wooing high-profile partners and establishing themselves in practice areas where US firms in London have traditionally been weak such as employment and IP. And this week Weil Gotshal revealed that it had taken telecoms client MediaOne from under the nose of Clifford Chance (see page 3).

Hopefully, such developments may help to shake UK firms out of their smug complacency which has been fuelled by an old Imperialist notion that British lawyers have a manifest destiny to rule the legal world because of the primacy of English law.

British law firms need to focus on their core areas of expertise, but as in-house lawyers become more powerful than ever firms also need to learn lessons from US firms and refocus their activity on client care. Though it may not be all plain sailing for the US firms – KPMG's announcement of its "alliance" with US law firms highlights future vulnerabilities – our analysis (pages 8-10) reveals the many US firms which are actively planning mergers with City firms.

Clifford Chance's status as "national champion" on the global legal scene may prove to be a false dawn as US firms begin to take over UK firms and, most worryingly, begin to poach major UK clients.