Davis Polk hit by $1.4m lawsuit from recruiter over Clifford Chance HK hires

US firm Davis Polk & Wardwell has been hit by a $1.4m (£900,000) lawsuit from a legal headhunter demanding unpaid fees for his alleged role in the hire of a two-partner Hong Kong disputes team from Clifford Chance.

Alan Metz has instructed New-York based Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard of counsel to issue a claim for damages that alleges that Davis Polk hired the magic circle firm’s Asian litigation head Martin Rogers and fellow partner James Wadham after being introduced by him.

According to the lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court of the State of New York last Wednesday (5 June), Davis Polk was “unjustly enriched” by sealing the hire without Metz, who claims to have carried out a large amount of legwork on behalf of the firm and the candidates.

In the telephone conversation on 18 June 2012, Rogers gave Metz confidential information about his practice, including detailing his personal billings of HK$75m-100m (£6.4m-7m) and his supervised billings for his practice of HK$200m (£17.4m), as well as his personal billing rate of HK$9,500 (£773) per hour, according to the filing.

The lawsuit says Rogers told Metz his clients accepted these rates except where Clifford Chance agreed discounts on behalf of the entire firm.

Rogers expressed interest in meeting a Wall Street firm whose Hong Kong head had contacted Metz as part of a search for a litigator, according to the lawsuit. The claims says Rogers and Wadham had written up a wish list of firms they would be interested in joining, including Davis Polk, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Debevoise & Plimpton, Sullivan & Cromwell and Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison.

Metz asked Rogers if he would like Metz to approach these firms and received permissions from Rogers, according to the suit. The list was later expanded to include Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Cravath Swaine & Moore. Metz also suggested Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, but Rogers said he was talking to them already and was not interested in the firm, according to the claim.

On 24 June, Metz allegedly pitched Rogers to Davis Polk’s Hong Kong head William Barron without disclosing the partner or firm’s name but described him as “the head of the largest and highest-quality litigation and disputes resolution practice in Hong Kong”, the lawsuit says.

“Because of the small size of the Hong Kong legal community, it was obvious to Barron that Metz was referring to Rogers,” the suit claims. Barron said he was not interested in a litigation team at the time but said he might consider it in one to two years and asked Metz to keep Davis Polk in mind, according to the suit.

On 17 July, Rogers phoned Metz to tell him that rather than taking his full team of 35-40 lawyers in his department, he would consider moving only a core group of him, Wadham and 15 associates and counsel, according to the suit, as this was “detachable” and “scalable”. He asked Metz to convey this to the targeted firms, the claim says. Metz passed this message on to Davis Polk’s Barron without mentioning Rogers’ name, according to the suit.

On 4 September Rogers told Metz his practice was running “10 per cent ahead of 2011” although “the firm as a a whole was performing badly”, the claims says. He told Metz his practice was generating $4m (£2.6m) per equity partner.

Metz alleges in the lawsuit that while Metz was promoting Rogers to a number of firms with Rogers’ encouragement, Rogers “was secretly negotiating with DP [Davis Polk]”. On 13 December, Davis Polk issued a press release announcing the hire of Rogers and Wadham (13 December 2012).

“This was a stunning development to Metz who did not know that there had been any direct contact between Davis Polk and Rogers,” the lawsuit claims.

According to the lawsuit, Metz immediately phoned Rogers, who was “flustered and evasive” but “blurted out that he started speaking to DP [Davis Polk] in the first half of the year” and allegedly said Metz had not done anything to deserve a fee.

Metz emailed Rogers on 16 December saying Rogers has an “ethical responsibility” to keep him updated about his conversations with law firms and that Metz might “suffer a devastating and profoundly painful financial loss”, according to the suit.

The lawsuit also claims: “But for Metz providing DP [Davis Polk] with financial information about Rogers and his willingness to leave CC [Clifford Chance] for DP, defendant would not have been able to consummate the employment of Rogers and his team.”

Metz also alleges in the claim that he was “excluded from the negotiations between Rogers and DP in an attempt to avoid DP’s obligation to pay a fee to Metz for his services”.

Metz is demanding $1.4m in damages, claiming that “as a result of the inequitable conduct of defendant and Rogers, plaintiff has been deprived of a fee which was equal to $1.4m. D&P [Davis Polk] has been unjustly enriched in the same amount”.

Davis Polk declined to comment.