It is a sweet irony that walking away from the offices of The Lawyer on my way to Shearman & Sterling I am going against the flow of a motley bunch heading up to Oxford Circus where the riot police are waiting in force. Ironic because Shearmans new competition star Chris Bright, starting at the firm that day, spends his days smoothing the path for globalisation and company growth – the very things that the May Day protests were against.
But Bright is not a man who shies away from moves that will shock. Only two years ago, he set the cat among the pigeons by becoming the first partner to move between magic circle firms, from Linklaters & Alliance to Clifford Chance, thus breaking the longstanding gentlemen’s agreement not to poach within the elite club.
Bright moved because he wanted to run the show, but there were already three people above him in the Linklaters pecking order even before the alliance was formed. And now Bright has become the first top-tier UK competition partner to join a US firm in London, leaving behind his role as Clifford Chance’s head of competition.
Not unusually, he has signed an agreement with Clifford Chance stating that he will not “be nasty” about it, but he says that he has moved on because he had more or less completed the job that he was brought in to do. The job was to restructure the competition department and make it a cohesive body within the firm, and Bright says: “None of us anticipated the speed at which we’d do it. I like to think that they’ll miss me. I’ll certainly miss them, but they’ll survive.”
Later though, Bright hints at another reason why he may have decided to move on. He says: “Shearmans still has a very discernable partnership culture. Linklaters hasn’t lost it through size, but Clifford Chance somewhat lost it through its merger in 1989. The partners here [at Shearmans] obviously love the firm and there is a very strong feeling [of partnership]. Clifford Chance is different – much more corporate in structure.”
Bright started talking to Shearmans a year ago, with serious discussions beginning in the autumn. He says that he has met more of the firm’s partners than he did before joining Clifford Chance. One of them, head of the UK practice in London Ken MacRitchie, lives down the road from him in Oxford, which presumably meant that Shearmans was able to keep the pressure up on Bright round the clock.
He has been brought on board at Shearmans as part of an aggressive expansion of its M&A and competition work within the London office. “Shearmans is at a stage where it’s the natural thing to do,” he says. “The response from the clients has been, ‘Why didn’t Shearmans do this before?'”
Bright believes that his new firm has the potential to be one of 10 global firms in a few years, handling top-end M&A work. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he?
His two moves within two years have left both Linklaters and Clifford Chance bruised, with sources suggesting that Linklaters in particular was, to put it mildly, less than pleased with Bright’s departure, although the marketing department at the firm was quick to play down suggestions that his departure came as a blow. Another source close to Clifford Chance says that Bright was dismayed with the lack of influence within the giant that is Clifford Chance frustrating.
Shearmans is talking to other partners around the City about the possibility of coming on board – five more M&A specialists, two tax partners and one more London-based competition partner, to work with two more Brussels-based partners. Bright is also after associates and says that he got the first associate CV through on the morning that he made the front page of The Lawyer (23 April).
The competition market is one that is both growing and changing at the moment. And well aware that it is unable to cope with the deluge of cases brought to its doors, the European Commission is trying to push back as many cases as possible to national agencies, such as the Competition Commission, while keeping the big cases for itself.
Bright says: “Brussels isn’t a mature system. It’s been running for the past 40 years, but it’s only during the past 10 that it’s taken competition policy seriously.”
He believes that the next few years will see competition policy coming even further towards the front line in deals. “Over the next 10 years we’ll see the competition policy being turned into a science. It’s tended to be more touchy-feely in the past, and based on who you know.”
In the past, he says that Brussels spent much of its time fretting about vertical restraints (anti-competitive agreements between parties at different levels in the production and supply chain), but he believes that if the commission truly wants to improve the lives of ordinary consumers at ground level, it now has to focus more on breaking up cartels.
Bright explains: “London may lead the way in this, certainly if the current administration stays in place. We’ll see morality brought into competition law. It will become unacceptable for people to become involved in those practices [of cartels] and the whole culture of this will change to become more serious.”
He predicts that this change will lead to a more evidence-based approach, with a lot more resultant litigation. He says it will follow the US lead, where the criminalisation and an economics-based approach to cartels was developed during the 1970s and 1980s. Already, Bright believes that the mix of disciplines involved in competition law is only about 25 per cent pure law.
“Then, after that, it’s split equally into how institutions tick – they’re just people not bureaucrats – and economics,” he says. “The psychology of Brussels is based very much on individuals, although there are some identifiable trends. It’s become very macho and wants to be the toughest regulator in the world. It has a slight attitude that big business is the bad boy, while it desperately wants to be seen as mature and professional.”
Bright says: “You find people who are motivated by collecting scalps and you learn that you might have to give them a few follicles, but not the scalp in total. There’s very little economic ability among the regulators.”
Bright relates all this with a wry smile rather than anger. Perhaps spending at least 50 per cent of his time in Brussels has taught him patience, or maybe he was always a placid character. While confident, his ambition does not leap out at you in the way that his recent career history might suggest.
He is optimistic that dealing with Brussels is getting easier. “It’s more determined and more sceptical of big business activity than it was before, but easier to deal with in that it’s dealing with a set of rules now rather than smoke-filled corridors and the political aspect. However, they tend to think that their job in life is to stop things.”
Bright says that Americans tend to view Brussels as chaotic, heavily politicised and anti-American. To a large extent he believes they are wrong, although not completely.
While he spends a lot of time shuttling between London and Brussels, Bright says that he will never move to the Belgian capital because his wife, an Oxford academic, will not move there. And one of the things Bright says he learnt at Clifford Chance was that keeping the balance right between work and homelife was key.
“Which might sound odd moving here,” he smiles, without elaborating why he thinks moving to a US firm is going to improve his quality of life. But then, as he points out, he has already “done” two magic circle firms, so he could hardly move on to another one.
Shearman & Sterling