Now, I don’t want to pile on in terms of rooting for my hometown ,but it’s plausible (I asked and people agreed) to imagine that the New York/London axis will grow even stronger in future. Several people even hypothesized that Amsterdam, Paris, et al. would come in a distant second to New York as the new safe haven for major financials and corporates.  And there’s logic to that, especially given New York’s vast and sophisticated infrastructure of schools, cultural institutions, attractive residential neighborhoods, restaurants and nightlife, publishing, media, high-tech incubators, world-class hospitals, etc.  Even lawyers and investment bankers, after all, would rather live in cosmopolitan and highly diverse cities than in a more provincial or government-dominated  city..

We also speak English and have a perfectly respectable basis–New York law–for international transactions. What we don’t and never will have is the unbeatable  time zone of London.

The problem with positing New York as the haven for London refugees from all sorts of industries is, for law firms, that it of course brings us squarely up against the last decade of US firms’ experience in London vs. UK firms’ experience in the States and especially New York.  

To condense a decade’s worth of history into a sound=bite US and NY firms have been tremendously successful in London and the reverse is anything but true.

Remember where we came in?  Somewhere between free-floating anxiety and a struggle with “what’s next?”   The asymmetry of performance in transatlantic ventures cannot be comforting to contemplate.  (This is not a judgment; it’s an observation about what has happened in two markets since the GFC.)

Another nasty complication, anyone?  Lockstep is being questioned, dialed back, reformed mildly or radically, and is generally under assault as never before.  Even though lockstep was really only adopted semi-widely in the 1970’s (the British firms having done fine for a few centuries prior without it), it’s always traumatic to question whether something deemed sacrosanct to many firms’ cultures is no longer fit for purpose.   A problem US firms don’t have.

Finally, real honest-to-God transatlantic combinations are  occuring: Gowlings WLG, Eversheds Sutherland and BLP Bryan Cave.  These are serious big-league firms joining forces, which for many years was thought impossible unless it was going to be Freshfields and Davis Polk.  (Funny how people have stopped talking about that–sanely, I might add.)

Don’t damn these combinations with faint praise, as I fear one UK legal publication did with the phrase “laudable realism.”  Realism in the face of how many degrees of freedom the market permits your firm is in my book far more than “laudable”–it’s the starting point for compelling strategy.  “Know who you are.”

So I suppose in retrospect I shouldn’t be surprised to have found myself coming away somewhat nonplussed at how to distill my impressions.

Yes, the UK firms have had a rough decade.  But the other salutary development I found is that each is increasingly going its own way: The concept that there’s a monolithic Law Firm Ideal out there–lockstep, exporting UK law and work from London the provinces, acting for the largest and most prestigious institutions, is long since dead.  But for some time the question has loomed, “What is to replace it?”  (Or, simply, “What’s next?”)  

Since, as you may have inferred, I count myself a realist, this in the long run may have been the happiest development of all.


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