In a deal announced this week, one of the largest law firms in the United States is set to become the first to take on the City giants on their own terms. Sidley & Austin has offered partnerships to John Edwards, head of information industries at Clifford Chance, and two banking partners from Cameron Markby Hewitt, Graham Penn and Howard Waterman.
It is the first time that a clutch of such senior solicitors has moved to a US firm. Sidley & Austin is forming a multinational partnership under Law Society rules, and all three will have full equity
The move is just the first step, according to Sidley & Austin's managing partner in London, Mark Angelson. 'We don't intend to remain a small, principally American office,' he says. 'We intend to become a substantial City office comprised principally of English solicitors.'
Sidley & Austin is best known in the US as a Chicago practice, where it was founded in 1866. However, some 35 years ago it began to grow, first in Washington DC, later in Los Angeles and then New York, and now employs around 700 lawyers. The firm is, according to Mr Angelson, one of the few truly national participants in the US. He talks a great deal about English-speaking, common law jurisdictions, meaning those within the United States. It appears to be as tricky to bridge the cultural differences within the US itself, as those between the Americans and the English.
Until recently, American lawyers thought that what lay outside the Pacific and Atlantic boundaries was relatively unimportant. 'Our clients taught us that the day when that view was appropriate has passed,' Mr Angelson says. 'We needed to respond to our clients' needs for a broader service. But we needed to do it in measured steps, and in a way that will ensure absolute top quality. We currently have no way of evaluating in a perfect way practitioners who practice in a language other than English, or in other than common law jurisdictions.'
In any event, Sidley & Austin has retained a small presence in London for around 20 years. But it decided only to form a fully functioning office if lawyers of the right quality could be found. The areas of law selected for the London project include telecommunications, media, banking and structured finance work. Clients include AT & T, several of the major accountancy firms, Barclays, Citibank, General Electric and the advertising agency Foote Cone & Belding.
John Edwards is a leading telecommunications lawyer; Graham Penn, a bank regulatory lawyer, is a specialist in structured finance transactions, and editor of the Journal of International Banking Law; Howard Waterman specialises in advising foreign banks in London, particularly in syndicated, trade and project financings.
These men cannot work alone, so teams need to be built. This, says Mr Angelson, will lead to areas of law that were not originally on Sidley & Austin's list, such as property, tax and securities. 'Our prospective new partners cannot function completely without them,' he says.
The three will be joining Sidley & Austin later in the year. Other appointments are in the pipeline, but the 'high road' taken by Sidley & Austin requires that they are not compromised until they have resigned from their present firms. 'We have a reputation in the US as gentlemen and women. We aim to bring that reputation here with us,' Mr Angelson says.
'In the complex and innovative areas of law in which we choose to practice, we aim to compete with the finest City firms,' he says uncompromisingly. 'We are talking about attracting top quality individuals in measured steps, either one at a time or in small teams. It is not our style to raid whole
It is possible that Sidley & Austin's move may be received unenthusiastically by the City firms, but Mr Angelson remains undeterred. 'We are committed to having solicitors in sufficient numbers so that we can accept several simultaneous instructions in complex and innovative transactions. Although we will do this carefully, with a constant eye on quality, there will be no artificial limits on growth,' he says.
He adds that it is important the prototypes for the London office are the other English-speaking common law jurisdictions in which Sidley & Austin operates, referring to its four American bases.
'There are significant cultural differences among various regions of America. London will provide us with an even more significant cultural challenge, but we believe that our experience in opening what have proved to be successful offices in various parts of North America will be most helpful to us. We have learned a lot about cross-cultural management,' he says.
'Why are these lawyers coming to us? Not for the money - at least that is not my perception. These are sophisticated men who conducted a very careful due-diligence exercise before accepting our offer,' he says. 'They found us to be of appropriate character, integrity and collegiality, and we are confident that others who go through the exercise with us will reach the same conclusion.'
Another top ten US firm has appointed an English partner in London. Steven Loble, formerly a litigation partner with Nabarro Nathanson, has joined Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, whose London office became a multinational partnership in January.
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