Transactions may be down in the US, but overseas M&A work is booming and US law firms are increasingly mining the lucrative overseas markets to weather the downturn at home.

Transactions may be down in the US, but overseas M&A work is booming and US law firms are increasingly mining the lucrative overseas markets to weather the downturn at home.

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, a 950-lawyer New York firm, got the job when bankers needed deal- savvy attorneys to help launch a $3 billion sale of shares in Reliance Power Ltd., India’s third-largest utility.

As the credit crisis drove first-quarter U.S. mergers and acquisitions down 54 percent to $248.1 billion from $536.3 billion last year, deal volume in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa rose 39 percent, from $77.2 billion to $107.2 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The rise in overseas mergers and acquisitions as U.S. volume hits a five-year low has encouraged Wall Street law firms led by Cleary Gottlieb; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Dewey & LeBoeuf to accelerate foreign expansion programs in place for a decade or more. Some are giving partners $250,000 housing allowances and offering associates $150,000-a-year incentives to move overseas.

“The growth outside of the United States has clearly outstripped the growth inside the United States,” said Mark Walker, managing partner of Cleary Gottlieb. The firm represented Kotak Mahindra Capital Co and UBS Securities India Pvt in Mumbai- based Reliance Power’s initial public offering that was listed Feb. 11 on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

While Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft fired 35 associates in January and Clifford Chance ousted six in November, Los Angeles- based Gibson Dunn & Crutcher is adding to its roster of 102 lawyers abroad. The firm’s foreign revenue grew more than 215 percent in five years as the total reached $907.7 million in 2007, spokeswoman Pearl Piatt said. She declined to disclose the overseas share.

Gibson Dunn

Gibson Dunn opened an outpost in Dubai in 2007 and signed up Oxford-educated Jai Pathak, 49, as a partner in its Los Angeles office from Jones Day, where he’d headed the India practice and ran the Singapore office. Gibson Dunn partners made $1.9 million on average in 2007, Piatt said.

The firm said it has 836 lawyers in the U.S. and 102 overseas compared with 52 abroad in 2002.

At Weil, Gotshal & Manges, a 1,200-lawyer New York firm whose clients in the U.S. and China include Providence Equity Partners Inc. and Bain Capital LLC, foreign revenue accounted for $246.8 million in 2007, 21 percent of the $1.18 billion total, spokesman Mike Ford said. That’s up from 19 percent of the $1.05 billion recorded in 2006. The firm has 296 lawyers abroad now, Ford said, declining to give the total in 2006.

The firm opened in Hong Kong for the first time in October, bringing in partner Akiko Mikumo, 54, from New York to head the office.

A Japanese-American and one of the few women leading overseas expansions among the 15 largest U.S. firms, Mikumo had advised Providence Equity Partners, Ontario Teachers Pension Plan Board and Madison Dearborn Partners LLC in the $51 billion takeover last year of BCE Inc., Canada’s biggest telephone company. Weil partners made an average of $2.1 million in 2007, Ford said.

Oil-exporting countries are also attracting attorneys from the U.S. New York-based Dewey & LeBoeuf, the product of a merger of two firms that have been moving lawyers abroad for 10 years, opened in Dubai in January and is expanding in Moscow and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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