The Leader Column

It was a setback, sure enough. After a veritable spasm of acquisitions in the UK and Germany, White & Case has finally accepted defeat in its attempt to merge with Paris firm Jeantet & Associes. As we reported in April, talks were beginning to founder; they may have limped on for a few more months, but Jeantet had already made up its mind to stay single.

So White & Case will have to think again. The management (wherever it is – given White & Case’s seemingly federal operation, the management seems hard to locate) could probably do with the breathing space. Not only has the firm had to digest Maurice Allen’s finance teams from Weil Gotshal & Manges in London, but the dust has hardly settled on the German merger with Feddersen Laule Ewerwahn Scherzberg Finkelnburg Clemm.

It will be fascinating to see how White & Case proceeds. Very few US firms have built anything approaching an integrated European operation, so it’s not as if there are many templates to choose from. The old White & Case approach was to mimic Baker & McKenzie, establishing offices all over Europe and with an apparent taste for the pointlessly exotic. It may be nice to know you get every big deal in Turkey and Sweden, but that’s hardly cause for air-punching.

Nowadays, there seems to be a recognition to move towards the Clifford Chance model, cheered on by Maurice Allen (once a CC man, always a CC man). This means strength in depth in key jurisdictions and a focus on obvious mainstream practice areas, such as finance.

Except there’s a fatal flaw to this expansionist policy. It’s all very well to trawl for mergers in France and Southern Europe, but if its grand ambitions are to be realised, White & Case needs to shore up the London office. Ironically enough, it has the network but not the hub.

Given White & Case’s appetite for merging (it’s an open secret that it has approached numerous City firms in the past couple of years), it is inevitable that it will try again. After all, with average profits at $725,000 (£499,000), it comes much more within London firms’ orbit. What it needs right now is some ballast on the City side, plus ready-made businesses in Spain and Italy. Step forward, Simmons & Simmons.