In one of the midtown Manhattan high-rises that house the cream of the US legal profession, a combative senior partner seems uncharacteristically unsure when asked about the threat posed by his London-based rivals.
While he thinks the British have failed to make the inroads into the New York market they desperately want, he acknowledges that their policy of aggressive international expansion elsewhere might just have a point.
“I am not sure I can tell you today in 2006 whether their [the British firms’] strategy is smarter or ours is,” he says. “I can see some serious positives with what they do – but I can also see some serious negatives.”
At the end of a year in which a thriving cross-border corporate takeover market has brought in fat fees from their biggest clients, the legal advisers themselves may soon face a moment of international make-or-break. A big strategic gamble is playing out in an industry that has traditionally been less corporate and less multinational than most. The critical question is: who has come up with the best plan to build a global law firm?
The answer matters not just to the lawyers but to the business clients they aim to cater to around the world. Underlying the question is whether companies will ultimately prefer to be served by one-stop-shop multinational law firms or by cherry-picking different legal practices in different countries.
Leading US law firms harvest the world’s largest legal market at home and plough cautiously elsewhere, while many of the biggest British-based firms have placed a huge bet on building extensive international networks and a global presence.