UK lords at US firms: Lords on board

UK lords at US firms: Lords on board The arrival of a couple of UK Law Lords at two US firms, when set against the ­cataclysmic events of the past couple of months, may seem small beer.

But in the context of the transatlantic legal market, the hire by Debevoise & Plimpton and Gibson Dunn & Crutcher of Lords Goldsmith and Falconer respectively is paradigm-changing stuff.

Until former Attorney General Goldsmith arrived at Debevoise in September last year, the movement of a figure from the heart of the UK Government to a US law firm had never happened at such an exalted level. The response from many in the legal market, however, was largely cynical.

“Both firms clearly wanted to do something that would make a public impact,” says a litigation partner at another US firm. “But how profitable will they be? Is that even the aim? At the end of the day, it looks more like a PR manoeuvre.”

Model ambitions

All of those comments are ;justified ;and ­reasonable. And all were put to both lords by The Lawyer last month.

“My challenge is to prove there’s more to it than marketing,” admits Falconer, who became the second of the pair to move to a US firm when he joined Gibson Dunn over the ­summer. “My aim is to be a hands-on lawyer and work on cases in the ­common law world.”

For Falconer and his new firm that is likely to mean working in Hong Kong, Singapore and the Middle East, as well as London. Falconer is the first to admit that his position as a former Lord Chancellor means he is unable to appear in court. So an immediate difference between the two is that Debevoise’s lord is going to be doing a lot more advocacy than Gibson Dunn’s.

“There are differences between the two of us,” confirms Goldsmith. “I had the choice of going back to the bar. Charlie [as a former Lord Chancellor and judicial appointee] didn’t. He isn’t able to be an advocate in the courts.”

In ;contrast ;with ;Falconer, ­Goldsmith continued to work as an advocate while in government, acting for the Government on cases in a role played by the Solicitor General in the US. A year on from his arrival in the US, Goldsmith says he is at least as determined as his counterpart at Gibson Dunn to be a full-time, hands-on lawyer. In a particularly bullish ;comment, ;Debevoise’s ­European disputes chair also says he is hoping to help build “a new model” of litigation.

Goldsmith was approached by a number of UK firms when his tenure as Attorney ­General was up, but he ultimately ;plumped for ;Debevoise because ;he believed that the US firm would be well placed thanks to its strong foothold in the US ­litigation market. Now Goldsmith is looking to marry the two cultures.

“The aim is to combine the best of British with the best of American,” he reveals. “The American style is to offer one-stop, tenacious lawyering, which means being by the client’s side from start to finish. The British style produces people with a very high level of experience and skills, but clients will ­occasionally say in relation to UK ;firms, ‘Why ;can’t we have the same lawyer all the way through from start to ­finish and arguing the case in court?”

With his ‘new model’, the plan will be to do just that. So far, with his first-year anniversary at Debevoise now behind him, Goldsmith’s hands-on approach has translated into numerous roles, including heading a team for Aditya Birla Group in ­arbitrations over a telecom joint-­venture dispute with Tata Group; ­acting for the late Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili and his ­principal heirs in disputes with the Georgian government and subsequent multijurisdictional litigation; and advising financial ­institutions on issues arising from the credit crisis, such as recovering assets frozen in prime brokerages.

Standard bearers

Falconer says he, too, is seeing an increasing number ;of ;credit crunch-related issues. ;“It’s ;becoming ;a ;very ­dominant theme,” he adds.

Falconer, who joined Gibson Dunn’s London litigation group as senior counsel in July, agrees with his former Government colleague that the lure of a US firm’s weighty disputes practice was irresistible.

“Gibson Dunn’s a very substantial US firm with a big standing and prestige in the US, as well as substantial offices elsewhere,” says Falconer, adding that his new firm has ­ambitions to significantly strengthen its disputes capability in London.

Until the early years of this decade, Gibson Dunn had no local law ­capability in London at all. Now the firm has around 60 lawyers in its City office, including four partners in ­dispute resolution.

“We’re keen to have a proper ­practice in London, with substantial litigation and arbitration,” Falconer says. “That means a local law capability for US clients and local clients. You’ve got to be able to handle both.”

And as for the PR aspect? Both of the lords accept the inescapability that there will be at least some marketing sitting alongside the fee-earning work.

“There’s a degree of marketing for any partner in any law firm,” Goldsmith admits. “But I wanted a full-time, hands-on role, so I try to wave the flag while also doing legal work.”

Expect to see the Union Flags and Stars and Stripes in action from
both of Blair’s buddies in the months to come.

For more on litigation, read our features on the litigation strategies of the global elite and our interview with Paul Weiss’s Brad Karp.

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