The Leader Column

Cast your mind back to 2000 and consider the merger talks between Ashurst Morris Crisp and Latham & Watkins. Comic, isn't it? Goodness knows who thought the merger would have made sense, especially since both firms are protective to the point of obsession about their culture. Here's Ashursts – hugely traditional, overwhelmingly male and utterly posh. And here's Latham – not quite a bunch of West Coast hippies, but not far off; a culture where associates have a say in partner appointments and prospective lateral hires get hawked round the offices for months.
After the dramatic and very public collapse of negotiations with Ashursts, Latham pointedly decided to eschew merger, setting out a series of priorities for European expansion – namely Germany, France and Brussels. No strategic surprises there, sure. What has been extraordinary, though, is the speed – laced with opportunism – with which Latham has built such a credible European offering.
First came SchöNolte, late of Gaedertz (London managing partner Joe Blum's secondment to the Hamburg firm in the early 1990s certainly paid off) and then came Stibbe's Paris office. Notably, in both France and Germany, Latham pounced after internal tensions at those firms prised partners loose. More recently, there was the four-partner raid on Wilmer Cutler & Pickering to set up in Brussels. After these little flurries, Latham now has 230 lawyers across Europe. That's some acceleration. One suspects that its success has even taken the firm by surprise.
No prizes for guessing that the tone of Latham's recent release on its revenue growth (see our news story on page 11) is one of barely-suppressed jubilation. Still, amid all this euphoria, the Latham management might want to take a cold shower. The firm deserves a big pat on the back for its progress so far – though given the way it was able to build up such a stellar New York office despite its West Coast origins, such progress seems par for the course.
There is one little cloud. For all the successes elsewhere in Europe, the London office has not grown at the same pace. It has some quality people, but unless it can build out its practice soon it will be doing its Continental brethren a disservice. 2002 may be best spent shoring up in London. If it really wants to challenge Shearman & Sterling, it had better start bulking up fast.