Phila. law firms building a larger presence overseas

Sean Geraghty of Dechert is upbeat on Europe.
Sean Geraghty of Dechert is upbeat on Europe.
Posted: February 22, 2014

LONDON - Jonathan Angell jumped to the London office of Philadelphia-based Dechert L.L.P. four years ago from a British law firm because there was more opportunity to do cross-border deals, the kind of work he finds most interesting.

But Angell doesn't necessarily think of Dechert as an American firm with a British office.

"National identities have become less important," said Angell, a Dechert partner. "There is discussion from time to time. What are we? We have people here from different jurisdictions. It feels quite like an English firm, but at the same time it is a very international firm."

Like other large law firms in Philadelphia and across the United States, Dechert is growing overseas, even as the number of its lawyers in this country has declined. Since 2007 the firm has added nine foreign offices, among them offices in Almaty, Kazakhstan; Dubai; and Frankfurt, Germany. One-third of the firm's 925 lawyers are in offices abroad; in 2008, fewer than 20 percent of its lawyers were.

To a great extent, firms such as Dechert are following their clients, which have been forging into new markets in other countries. But it is a pretty good hedging strategy, too. When business in one part of the globe cools, it very often is heating up somewhere else.

"You always have some part of the globe that is surprisingly busy," said Henry Nassau, a Dechert partner who manages the firm's corporate practice from its offices at the Cira Centre in University City.

Nassau, a transactional lawyer given to spouting quotes from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, says one measure of how quickly the international practice is changing is that the firm's lawyers increasingly are involved in transactions that bypass the United States. Time was that deals typically involved a U.S. company and a foreign counterparty. More and more, Dechert lawyers in overseas offices are handling transactions between entities from outside the U.S.

"Increasingly, someone in Beijing wants to talk to someone in Almaty," without U.S involvement, Nassau said.

Firms such as Dechert have had a presence overseas for years. Its first office was opened in Brussels in 1968. Former chairman Bart Winokur opened the firm's London office in the 1970s. But the growth abroad for Dechert, and other firms with a large presence in Philadelphia, such as Morgan Lewis & Bockius and Reed Smith L.L.P., has been accelerating.

Smaller firms, such as 500-lawyer Blank Rome L.L.P., headquartered in Center City, also have expanded overseas, but more modestly.

Blank Rome has one office abroad, in Shanghai, and Cozen O'Connor has long had an office in London.

But it is the larger firms that have the extensive global platforms. The largest office at Reed Smith, an 1,800-lawyer firm, now is in London, where the firm has 358 lawyers.

Morgan, with 1,400 lawyers in the U.S. and abroad, practically doubled its lawyer head count overseas in 2012 when it picked up 60 lawyers from Dewey & LeBoeuf, then on its way to bankruptcy. In one swift stroke, the firm added Dewey lawyers in Almaty, Moscow, and London.

Steven Wall, a Morgan partner who oversees the firm's practice groups, said the practice in energy-rich Kazakhstan complements the firm's long-standing energy work in Houston.

Among other engagements, the firm's Moscow office has been representing Aramark and others in connection with the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

All of this expansion creates a more layered and nuanced identity than was the case a generation ago when law firms in Philadelphia rarely branched outside the Mid-Atlantic region. Wall said the idea at Morgan now was for the firm's image to be shaped by its clients, each seeing the firm in a different way.

"There will be a global brand and the identity will be driven by the perception of the client who you are working for, which part of the Morgan elephant you touch," Wall said.

"Our aspiration is to be a brand but to be accessible to companies of all sizes. You can be a middle-market company in Reading and your view of Morgan Lewis will be more shaped by the fact that Morgan has 300 lawyers in Philadelphia."

At Dechert's office in London, much of the firm's image is tied up with corporate deal-making. Angell and fellow Dechert partner Sean Geraghty said that transactional work in Europe had been flat since the 2008 crash, but there are signs that deal-makers are starting to crawl out from their bunkers.

And an American firm in London is uniquely positioned to take advantage of any uptick, they say.

"The whole landscape has a little more solidity now," Geraghty said. "Banks appear to be slowly agreeing to lend money again and sellers who have gotten through the last five years without being a distressed seller or gone bankrupt now have gotten to the position of saying we can now think about that deal we were thinking about a few years ago."

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