The Economist carry a story about Cleary Gottlieb, the go-to law firm for governments like Argentina facing debt crises. And it’s been a boom area for country’s-close-to-collapse and hence good times for Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. But, as the esteemed magazine reports, 2014 was not a great year for sovereign debt law issues.
As they report: Since 1983 the firm has advised 28 sovereign debtors in 54 restructurings. Its recent clients include Greece and Iraq, as well as sturdier places like South Korea. Cleary’s lawyers have reaped both fame and fortune as a result: a survey of 17,000 lawyers by Vault, a jobs site, ranked it America’s seventh most prestigious firm. Its profit per partner of $2.9m last year ranks it 12th, according to American Lawyer magazine.
In 2014, however, the firm’s sovereign litigation clients have had a year to forget. In July arbitrators in The Hague ruled that Russia had illegally expropriated Yukos, a big oil company. They ordered the government to pay shareholders $50 billion, 20 times the previous record for arbitration. Argentina has suffered three setbacks at America’s Supreme Court. In March the justices reinstated a $185m award against the country.
Three months later, they let a ruling stand that banned Argentina from servicing the bonds it issued in debt swaps in 2005 and 2010, unless it also paid the full claim of “holdout” investors who rejected those deals. The decision led Argentina to default. The court also approved the holdouts’ use of American subpoenas to hunt for Argentine assets abroad.
Other parts of Cleary’s practice are also having a rough year. This week an appeals court in New York ruled that a lower court was wrong to dismiss lawsuits that victims of terrorist attacks in Israel had brought against Cleary’s client, National Westminster Bank (see article). A charity linked to Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, had held an account at the bank.
Cleary also represented Google in a failed effort to prevent a new “right to be forgotten” being established in Europe, forcing the company to block some search results. And press reports have identified Cleary as one of the firms said to have given advice to BNP Paribas, a French bank, on transactions with Iran, Sudan and Cuba, over which BNP later had to pay a $9 billion settlement. (Cleary has declined to comment on this.)
In any other industry, such a string of losses would send customers scurrying. Indeed, in Argentina opposition lawmakers have proposed a bill to make the government switch firms. However, the relationship between a law firm’s income and its success in court is murky. Clients know that in a high-stakes suit they and their opponents will both hire skilled and costly counsel, and one side will lose. Unlike in college debating contests, real-world results depend mainly on the merits rather than the ingenuity of the arguments. Furthermore, governments are sometimes more motivated by the political benefits of pursuing a case than by their chances of winning. Attempts by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (pictured) to make political hay out of Argentina’s restructuring case seem to have annoyed the judge, making Cleary’s job harder.