New House

Like many of London’s litigators, Allen & Overy (A&O) head of litigation Tim House is optimistic about the forthcoming year.

Despite a global redundancy programme that saw 47 partners and 200 fee earners part company with the firm, the litigation practice continues to grow. “All offices are up on last year and all performed ahead of budget, some dramatically so,” says a satisfied House. Last year, the firm set out its mission to grow the litigation practice to account for 15 per cent of overall turnover by 2012 (The Lawyer, 1 September 2008).

While House says the practice has made “strong progress” towards that goal, he admits that it is some way off attaining the ultimate figure. Management-wise A&O’s global litigation practice is run by a four-partner global steering group that is divided into four key geographical areas.

House has overall responsibility, Angus Ross is responsible for Hong Kong, Belgium-based Joost Everaert drives the European strategy and New York-based Michael Feldberg is responsible for US litigation.

Together they have the task of upping litigation turnover by a fifth before the 2009-10 year end. It is a goal that House is optimistic partners will achieve thanks to the fact that the firm has invested in an international structure. “We’re strong in London, the US, Hong Kong and Europe and we can take advantage of that position,” he says.

The group’s strategy is to become a lead player in each of its key jurisdictions to enable it to win the best instructions. “The goal of the practice is not purely financial,” says House. “Partners measure it by finance, it’s an important component, but actually what I’d like us to be known as is a leading contender for the best work in each of our 22 offices.”

A&O’s plans to grow the litigation practice may tally with wider counter-cyclical trends, but House says the upswing in litigation instructions has not been as sharp as might have expected a year ago. “There’s been a rising tide and I’ve been surprised by that – I thought it would be a crashing wave,” he admits. “We do expect it to keep rising for a few years and the international practices to be busy for some time.” The notable difference between this recession and that of the early 1990s has been the lack of bank on bank legal wars. House believes that is because the taxpayer now owns a stake in several banking institutions meaning the banks are afraid to litigate because it would damage an already tarnished image. “The biggest problems between the biggest banks are being settled,” House says. “It’s going on but the picture is more of them looking to resolve issues.” That said, House warns: “We may yet see some small-bank on big-bank litigation.” The firm will otherwise be dependent on instructions from its core client groups of financial services companies and corporates.

The majority of instructions – 70 per cent – are standalone with the remainder coming from within the firm. In the last year London opened 25 per cent more files than the previous year – an instant increase of £12m in fees. Internationally, the firm has seen the number of matters involving four or more partners based internationally grow by 23 per cent, highlighting the importance of an international presence. House is a practical manager and recognises that while the steering committee has responsibility for creating the strategy, ultimately it will be the partners who deliver the firm’s, and the practice’s, aims.