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For a couple of major US law firms, Paris rather than London has become the power base of their European operations as they put expansion plans to the fore.

If Daniel Hurstel’s schedule on Thursday, March 27, was anything to go by, the Paris legal market is in decent health. The head of Willkie Farr & Gallagher’s office there, Hurstel was frantically attempting to juggle two deals while explaining parts of the U.S. firm’s strategy in London to a visitor. The Paris mood is cautious, but it falls short of the outright pessimism of New York or the uncertainty of London.

“There’s some nervousness about volatility, but a lot of our corporate clients are looking at opportunities,” Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton partner Pierre-Yves Chabert says, echoing a common sentiment in the market. Some U.S. law firms are looking at opportunities, too. For Willkie and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Paris has become the power base of their European operations as they put expansion plans to the fore.

Of the two deals Hurstel was juggling on Thursday, only one is publicly disclosed as yet: the $800 million buyout of Kesa Electricals plc’s French furniture business by a private equity consortium comprised of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Colony Capital, LLC, and Merchant Equity Partners LLP. Willkie is advising the consortium in a deal that shows there’s some life in the private equity midmarket in France.

Hurstel’s other current focus is London, as he leads a four-partner committee (including two partners in New York and one in Washington, D.C.) that is reviewing the firm’s options for growing its presence in the city. Willkie now has a one-partner outpost in the U.K. capital, advising solely on U.S. law.

The current review is analyzing how the firm can add English law to the office to complement the firm’s existing European outposts in Milan, Rome, Frankfurt, Brussels and Paris. “We’re unusual in being fairly sizable on the continent but not in London,” Hurstel says. “We don’t rule anything out, but we won’t do it if we don’t find the right opportunity.”

Although Hurstel won’t be drawn on how or when the firm will make its London move — “it’s moving along nicely,” he says of the review — the current betting on the city grapevine is that something is imminent. Given the decimation of the leveraged buyout market, Willkie seems to have swallowed the business school mantra of invest in a downturn.

Another Paris-based partner currently masterminding his firm’s attempts at European domination is Orrick’s David Syed. The U.S. firm’s European senior partner has overseen the growth of the Paris office since he moved from U.K. midsize firm Watson Farley & Williams in 2002. Paris is now the dominant piece in Orrick’s five-office European network, a full-service practice of just more than 100 lawyers, including 50 who joined from Paris’s Rambaud Martel in 2006.

Now Syed is playing a key role overseeing the growth of London and launching a presence in Germany. With around 50 fee-earners, Orrick’s London office hardly makes a splash in the city market, but a couple of recent hires, such as corporate finance partner Hilary Winter from Jones Day, has given it some momentum. In Germany, merging with a local firm is solidly on the agenda, but Syed insists, “We’re not close yet.”

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