Reed Smith reacts to media exits with swoop for Channel 4 lawyer

Reed Smith is planning to aggressively ramp up its London media practice in response to the exits of three partners in the past 18 months.

Stephen Edwards
Stephen Edwards

Reed Smith is planning to aggressively ramp up its London media practice in response to the exits of three partners in the past 18 months.
The firm has hired ­Channel 4 head of legal for governance, regulatory and trading Nick Swimer as a partner.

Reed Smith media ­partner Stephen Edwards said Swimer’s arrival, set for 5 December, would be ­followed by more media arrivals.

“There are definitely more in the pipeline,” states Edwards, who in 1990 also joined the firm from an in-house position, having previously been head of copyright at the BBC. “We’re very much looking to expand the practice – there’s plenty of scope and we’re actively in the market.”

In August Wiggin bolstered its film and television offering with the hire of Reed Smith partner Neil Gillard, while last year ­partners Jonathan Berger and Peter Armstrong
left Reed Smith to join ­Harbottle & Lewis.

In the same period, ­however, Reed Smith has ramped up its media ­practice internationally, in particular with the hire of six partners on the US West Coast.

Big-name hires include Michael Sherman, former chair of the entertainment industries group at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell in Los Angeles, who joined Reed Smith’s Century City office as a partner in April.

Other recruits include former Manatt Phelps & Phillips entertainment ­specialists Tom Ara and Rob Sherman and interactive entertainment attorney Patrick Sweeney, who joined the firm in May.

“The West Coast people who joined us wanted a commitment that Reed Smith was behind the growth of its media team and we were able to provide that,” says Edwards.

We’re very much looking to grow our already large media practice. We currently have around 20 lawyers in ­London spending either all or a substantial part of their time on media work.”

Reed Smith clients in ­London include Channel 4, the BBC and MTV, plus a range of TV production companies. Legal work ranges from mainstream content matters to regulatory and competition issues, as well as corporate, commercial and litigation work.

The US firm’s London media practice was founded on the legacy Richards Butler group that joined as part of the firms’ 2007 merger.

That practice had its roots in the days of silent film in the 1920s, with Rank Films among its earliest clients. Indeed, Reed Smith ­continues to represent the Charlie Chaplin estate.

In recent years, however, much mainstream media work has become uneconomic for the majority of large international firms because the lower rates demanded by clients have made it less profitable than other areas of work.

The result has been firms sidelining or ditching of the practices – a trend highlighted by the exit of Reed Smith partners Gillard, Berger and Armstrong to lower-cost boutiques.

These partner losses sit in stark contrast to Edwards’ ’let’s build’ battle cry. While Reed Smith may be on the lookout to expand, the market is tight, at least when it comes to private practice.

“It’s not surprising they’ve gone in-house as there’s only a fairly small pool of substantial firms that focus on media and finding a content expert is challenging,” explains Adil Lalani of search specialist Glass. “The key questions for these firms are how profitable the work is and how much they grow the practice.”

For Channel 4 the exit of Swimer looks to have ­triggered an internal ­reorganisation. The lawyer was also corporation ­secretary at the broadcaster and his departure has been the catalyst for the creation of two new roles.

Paula Carter will take over as corporation secretary, with responsibility for looking after governance, while Rebecca Miller has been appointed to head the team handling commercial and regulatory matters.

Swimer previously ­practised at Nabarro as a ­litigation associate. As a result of his role at Channel 4 his primary experience is in broadcasting regulation, advertising, IP management and content production and distribution.