The award for City firm of the year, sponsored by Travelers, pits innovation-hungry players against expansive challengers. In an ever-competitive world, London-based law firms are using technology, real estate investment and lateral hiring opportunities to stand out.

One of the City’s largest law firm offerings – in terms of headcount and revenue – Reed Smith is a London staple. Thirteen years on from its transformative Richards Butler merger, the London office is still the firm’s biggest worldwide and over 2019/20 has displayed true intent to innovate and transform. It was the first global player to gain an alternative business structure licence, meaning it can widen its services beyond the law and obtain external cash injections. The deal is opportune given significant investment in a new delivery centre in Leeds, the first time a global player has set foot in the Northern city.

Client-wise, mandates are booming across a range of industries, such as shipping, technology and finance. The firm’s litigators are advising on one of the largest civil fraud matters currently before the Commercial Court in SKAT vs Solo, while a transactional team worked with the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity on a billion-dollar funding deal to advance learning worldwide.

Morgan Lewis & Bockius is next up, after a significant lateral hiring spree in the London market. Over 2018 and 2019, the firm added seven lateral partners and three partners through promotion, elevating its City headcount to over 100 lawyers, including 36 members.

Serving as a hub for activities across Continental Europe and the Middle East, Morgan Lewis’ London office has been focused on building out its energy, infrastructure and corporate offerings with quick success. The firm’s newest partner cohort, including Latham & Watkins’ Ayesha Waheed and Reed Smith’s Georgia Quenby, have already been reeled in on transformative deals. Waheed advised Turkish utilities group Enerjisa Enerji on a first-of-its-kind loan deal, while Quenby has been knee-deep in the high-profile battle to save Flybe. This, and the firm’s long-running involvement in the Tesco shareholder row and Sainsbury’s interchange fee claim, proves Morgan Lewis is right at the heart of the some of the nation’s biggest matters.

Like Reed Smith, DLA Piper has been ramping up its efforts in innovation, spearheaded by its London-based “radical change” initiative. The offering, which also encompasses ideas around process improvement, delivery and project management, is intended to change the way DLA lawyers work as it goes toe-to-toe with the might of the Big Four.

This, coupled with the opening of brand new City headquarters, has served to propel DLA’s image in London as it modernises and prepares for the next stage of its growth. Mandates on the mammoth Abraaj collapse, as well as the SFO’s long-running investigation into Barclays, further solidifies its status as a true London player.

Cooley too will mark the next stage of its London chapter with a move to new headquarters next year. Compared to many of its US peers, Cooley is still a newcomer in the City, launching nearly six years ago with an aim of capturing clients in profitable sectors, such as life sciences and technology.

So far so good. The firm’s London operations have doubled in size over the year to over 102 lawyers, including 30 partners. Turnover too has been on the up, increasing by 21 per cent over the past two years. Alongside deals in its sweet spots, such as investments in Monzo and an acquisition for DocuSign, Cooley is also stepping out of its comfort zone. Hires from Latham & Watkins and Brown Rudnick highlight new areas of interest in equity capital markets and white-collar work respectively.

Addleshaw Goddard is on a profile-boosting mission in London, evidenced by its appointment of its first London office chief Leona Ahmed. A familiar face on the real estate circuit, Ahmed is tasked with spearheading the firm’s City operations as it continues to punch above its weight in terms of new instructions. The London office for instance advised on nearly a quarter of all UK public takeover bids in 2018/19, while also winning work for 40 per cent of property companies in the FTSE 100. Increasing cash reserves of £59m means the firm is well-placed to invest even further in its core sectors and capture further blue-chip clients.

Another UK firm known for going above and beyond is Pinsent Masons, which wants to position itself as the go-to firm for City matters, including high-end corporate finance and M&A, big-ticket litigation, real estate deals and regulation. Grabbing mandates for CommScope on a $7.4bn acquisition deal, as well as for insurers Zurich and Royal London on a carve-out and Brexit strategy respectively, proves the firm is doing just that.

Pinsents is further aiming to market itself as professional services business first and foremost, having been an early mover in terms of consultancy offerings, freelance lawyering and forensic accountancy. As other firms start to consider non-law benefits for clients, Pinsents is already well ahead of the curve.

Latham & Watkins’ London office has been at the heart of the some of the biggest transactions of the past year, advising on Saudi Aramco’s IPO – the largest listing in history – as well as on EQT’s acquisition of Nestle’s Skin Health, a significant leveraged buyout deal that required top-level corporate and finance advice.

Over the past five years, Latham’s London headcount has expanded by 50 per cent, and the growth keeps on coming. It added plenty of lateral joiners over 2018/19 from the likes of Clifford Chance, Linklaters and Jones Day, cementing its reputation as not just the US firm to watch, but one to keep the magic circle on its toes.

Milbank celebrated its 40th anniversary in London last year, with its City operations going from strength to strength. Office turnover has leapt by 35 per cent in two years, meaning it can be viewed as one of the US firm’s brightest growth prospects. The results follow several years of careful investment across capital markets, leveraged finance, litigation and restructuring, with the firm’s Shearman hires working on 21 high-yield deals over the course of the year. Restructuring-wise, there’s been mandates on the Thomas Cook fall-out and for the senior creditors of European tech company Abengoa.

Office headcount now totals nearly 240, making it the firm’s second largest base after New York. But it could still grow further; new office space in London leaves Milbank with capacity for 300 lawyers and further expansion yet.

The full shortlist

Addleshaw Goddard
DLA Piper
Latham & Watkins
Morgan Lewis & Bockius
Pinsent Masons
Reed Smith

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The Lawyer Awards is going virtual for 2020! The ceremony, in association with Travelers, will take place online on the afternoon of 3 November. Visit the awards website to register.