Snail’s pace international expansion threatens Dorsey

Steve Hoare , senior reporter

As every good consultant will tell you: a successful firm must focus on its core strengths and dominate its market.

Unfortunately, for the international branches of US firm Dorsey & Whitney, that market would – in the eyes of many of its home-based partners at least – consist solely of the patch of ground between Minneapolis and Seattle.

Although it has so far been immune from the recent wave of departing partners, the sentiment is hardly likely to instil its London partners with confidence in the long term.

It’s a culture thing. While our partners mutter about their problems with the Germans or the Italians, the Yanks are muttering about us. Never more so than when those end-of-year figures start rolling in. For every White & Case (which astonished the market last week when The Lawyer revealed its 74 per cent profits jump in London) there is a Dechert, which was able to improve profitability only after a strategic review shed four partners and a raft of associates.

Another strategic review, this time at Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, cost three equity partners and nearly 20 associates their jobs, allowing the firm to maintain UK turnover at £79m. Its UK profit is not currently available, but we can rest assured that both turnover and profit are up globally.

There has been no such review at Dorsey, but some partners have clearly been doing one in their heads. The partners that left recently for Arnold & Porter were committed internationalists, but many of their colleagues out in the Midwest are clearly not.

The firm has yet to follow through on its European expansion plans. It has been threatening to open in France and Germany for years, but progress is slow, and the word is that their arrival is still likely to be a number of years away.

Dorsey’s London office has had a topsy-turvy time over the last few years. It was a real coup to entice Simon Whitehead’s lucrative tax litigation team from Landwell in 2003, but it lost three finance and capital markets partners to Hogan & Hartson later the same year. In 2004 it recruited the excellent Richard Baumann from Norton Rose to reinforce that practice, but the first signs of discontent emerged when corporate partner Michael McFall then left for McDermott Will & Emery.

One London partner claimed that more lateral partners were on their way. All well and good – but beware the mutterings from head office. Before long you’ll be strategically reviewed, and we all know what that normally means.