Herbies disputes group ups pressure for New York base

Litigators fear practice is falling behind after series of departures to international players

Herbert Smith’s disputes group is pushing the firm to gain a New York foothold after a string of departures and the erosion of workflow have weakened the practice’s leading position.

According to one litigation partner in the London office, partners in the ­arbitration group in particular are in favour of some kind of New York presence.

“These are markets where people are making a lot of money out of the law and we don’t exist there at the moment,” the partner said. “All the US firms are coming to compete with us here, so why shouldn’t we compete with them over there?”

While there are no immediate plans to launch in the US, another partner in the London team said international coverage had become a major preoccupation for the practice.

The partner said: “The proportion of billings from our international offices has gone up to 30 per cent of the total disputes practice and we’re looking at more international expansion than before.”

This has come into sharp focus in the past two years, given that Herbert Smith has lost several high-profile litigators to firms with more established international footprints.

Starting with Christa Band’s defection to Linklaters in 2009, the firm has seen departures including a three-partner Paris team led by Emea litigation head Denis Chemla that quit for Allen & Overy in May. Around the same time London-based investigations head Peter Burrell left to launch an anti-bribery practice for US firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher.

The departures have come as the firm has been losing some of its lower value disputes work to firms such as Addleshaw Goddard or Wragge & Co, which can service that work cheaper from Manchester or Leeds.

A source at a top London set said that Herbert Smith was doing less low-grade ­litigation than in the past.

“We get a lot of good work from them and I’m pleased that this is the case,” the source said, “but aggressive little boutiques are coming in and pitching lower for the mid-range work. There’s a good level of service to be had more cheaply.”