The reluctant defector

French lawyers are, on first impressions at least, gentlemen, and Gérard Mazet, who managed French firm Jeantet & Associés at the height of its success, is probably the smoothest of them all. His English accent could not be further from the comic pronunciation of the French policeman in television comedy series 'Allo 'Allo or indeed from the strong French lilt of his M&A rival Thierry Vassogne.

No, Mazet is incredibly calm and incredibly clear – you get the impression that composure is everything. And despite being lured from Jeantet by US firm Sullivan & Cromwell at the end of last year, he remains confident that Jeantet will make a comeback.

The company has certainly braved a storm. Since merger talks with White & Case fell through last October, a number of key partners have abandoned ship. Rising corporate star Sébastien Prat has joined his father at Bredin Prat, intellectual property (IP) specialist Pierre Lenoir chose to move to Andersen Legal, while Pascal Coudin was snapped up by Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. But it was the departure of the firm's managing partner Mazet and his colleague Jean-Pierre Le Gall that put the icing on the cake.

Disagreement at Jeantet has always stemmed from the question of whether to merge, and the decision to stay independent was not taken lightly. In 1997 Jeantet joined forces with UK firm Linklaters & Paines, Spanish firm Uría Menéndez, German firm Oppenhoff & Rädler, Belgium firm De Bandt Van Hecke Lagae & Loesch and Swedish firm Lagerlof & Leman to form L&P Euro.

“When companies started to dual list and transnational work stopped being a bilateral issue and became a multinational issue, Jeantet tried to create an alliance,” says Mazet. “But it didn't work. Once we were over the wedding party, we found it was difficult to get tough decisions through and the main stumbling block was strategy.”

But whereas Jeantet and Uria wanted to focus on high-value transactional work, the other firms wanted to participate in volume work as well. The disparity can be put down to differences in the market. The five accountancy-linked firms have a history in France that is not shared by the rest of Europe, and by 1997 they had already taken over the bulk of France's middle market.

“Partners in the alliance didn't understand our reluctance to grow and in 1998 we pulled out,” explains Mazet. “After leaving the alliance we forced partners to concentrate on high-value work. There was a significant reduction of lawyers, but there was also a growth of revenue and clients began to have a clearer idea of what we were doing.”

Jeantet fell from offering full-service in favour of specialising in M&A and commercial litigation. It closed its Eastern and Central European offices and, between 1998 and 2000, it lost about 10 partners.

But with the Anglo-Saxon firm continuing to tighten its grip on the market, the firm's troubles were far from over, and the partners turned their attention to the question of whether Jeantet should merge. According to Mazet, it was a very difficult decision to make.

“We looked around a number of firms to find one that was the right mix for Jeantet. We asked whether we should merge with a firm that complements our practice or with one that strengthens it. If we chose complementary, we'd blur our image, but if we chose one that was the same the partners would compete. In the end we decided not to merge and we pulled out of talks with White & Case.”

The realisation that the firm was not going to merge forced a number of partners to reassess their situations, and Mazet was among the partners that decided to leave.

“I left because, while I think a standalone firm makes sense for Jeantet, I've always worked in a very international environment and the bulk of international work is done by international firms,” he says.

But Mazet denies that the recent spate of departures spells the death of Jeantet. “French companies will continue to do international work because French clients go to French firms for both domestic and international transactions, whereas the international businesses are only used for local advice,” he says.

Mazet predicts that there will be regrouping and mergers among French firms as the strong partners start reaching retirement age and pressure mounts to find ways of preserving their firms.

However, the biggest obstacle is the regulation of the French legal market, which has created a culture of individualism and encouraged partners to work alone. Mazet claims that the culture is changing, but many lawyers remain sceptical.

“All French firms are trying to do whatever they can to eliminate the tendency for partners to work alone,” he says. Because French lawyers are all litigators, they tend to develop close relationships with their clients, which will then evolve over time. All French firms now understand that teamwork is important, but how they will adapt to the new environment remains to be seen.”

Mazet joined Jeantet as a partner in 1971, although he worked at the firm as an associate between 1967 and 1969 before emigrating to New York for a two-year stint at Hughes Hubbard & Reed.

Despite becoming part of the management team, he says management was never his aim and he has always remained hands-on. “I'd reached a stage in my career where I could either retire or do something else. But I needed to keep up the excitement,” he says of the period prior to his move to Sullivan & Cromwell.

“I moved to Sullivan & Cromwell because it's one of the elite firms and because it has a very good reputation. Here, I'll do M&A work and far less management,” he adds.

But Mazet has never been best known for management, and during his time at Jeantet he advised on some of the biggest deals in France. In 1996 he advised Crown Cork & Seal in its $5.2 bn (£3.6bn) acquisition of packaging company CarnaudMetalbox, which was the largest deal of the year involving a US investment bank.

“It was an interesting and complex merger because both parties were equal, but one was taken over by the other and the shareholders in the Franco-European company were becoming shareholders in the acquiring company,” says Mazet.

He also advised Aventis, the pharmaceutical giant created out of the $28.5bn (£19.8bn) merger of Rhone-Poulenc and Hoechst in December 1999. And as proof that he has not lost his touch, he is currently advising the French plastic bottle manufacturing company Sidel, which is being bought by Swedish packaging group Tetra Laval for $1.5 bn (£1.04bn).

Mazet may still be landing major deals, but he must also have reservations about leaving the firm where he has spent most of his working life. “It was extremely difficult to leave Jeantet,” he admits. “I love all the people there, they were my family. But there comes a point where you have to assess your situation, and I decided I wanted to try to have some fun.

“I still feel very close to the firm and I have no doubt it will continue to be successful. Three years ago people said it was the end of Gide [Loyrette Nouel] and Jeantet, but Gide has proved that, despite the difficulties, its strategy remains strong. And since Jeantet left the Linklaters alliance it has created a small but profitable firm.”

Mazet remains optimistic, but not everyone shares his optimism. Could his support stem from guilt that he has jumped a sinking ship? Paris will watch closely to find out.