The Leader Column

Magic circle? Enough already. A far more interesting European battle is going on elsewhere. Lovells Boesebeck Droste is gearing up for the big time. Its ambitions in Germany, France and Italy herald a new stage in its attempts to position itself as the alternative to the magic circle for pan-European corporate work.

To some extent this tack worked at home. For a while in the mid-1990s Lovells was the strong second choice for M&A work outside the magic circle – much of it due to corporate partner Dan Mace’s personal reputation. Lovells has been temporarily eclipsed by the rise of Herbert Smith, but it can take comfort that it has what Herbert Smith does not – namely, a developed European strategy.

The German hires of Oliver Kessler and Thomas Schrell are particularly significant. Lovells had already signalled its intentions in creating a truly integrated Anglo-German corporate practice by sending out Julie Bradshaw, one of its best private equity lawyers, to Frankfurt. This is not to say that Lovells will necessarily extend its 3i and Doughty Hanson franchises. After all, 3i spreads its favours between Christoph Schücking at CMS Hasche Sigle Eschenlohr Peltzer, Helge SchÄfer at White & Case Feddersen and Walter Henle at Baker & McKenzie, while Doughty Hanson is pretty much monopolised by Max Schiessl at Hengeler Mueller Weitzel Wirtz. It will take a lot for Bradshaw to displace any of them, despite her key relationship with 3i in London.

Lovells aside, only Ashursts has in any way an integrated European corporate capability. Herbert Smith certainly has a tidy French office and an increasingly heavyweight competition practice in Brussels. But merely managing a “best friends” relationship with Gleiss Lutz, however strong both firms are, is hardly the same as an integrated operation; it has PR work to do on that score.

But if Lovells really wants to impress the investment banks, it can’t just rely on Kessler to handle German debt securities. For that, it needs more bodies – and it’s not enough for Lovells to say that it handles only high-end capital markets work rather than volume. (That’s just code for saying that it doesn’t do half as many deals as Clifford Chance, A&O or Linklaters & Alliance.) No, what Lovells needs is US securities lawyers on the ground in Europe – fast. Once it can start hiring them, its battle with Herbert Smith and Ashursts to be the European alternative to the magic circle really will get interesting.

catrin griffiths, editor