Imagine a world where law firms were purposely political. A world in which some always advised on behalf of certain governments and not others. Where lawyers would choose to join a Democrat or a Republican firm. Where it was rare to have any major legal institution defend oligarchs, oil giants and tobacco companies from claims of any kind.
Such a world would frequently see injustice occur, whether through lack of access to decent legal advice or through a disproportionate focus on a political stance rather than the facts and merits of a particular case.
To work properly the legal industry needs to shy away from political stances. But there is a problem. As much as law firms try to remain apolitical, they can often find they are judged to have picked a side even by trying to stay out of the debate. They choose by not choosing.
The last month has brought this issue into sharp relief. Firms had to choose whether to remain open in Moscow or to close, there was no middle ground. Inaction did not denote an apolitical stance, quite the opposite. The fact that one German firm has decided to retain its Moscow presence, even though it won’t work with any Russian state enterprises, is notable as it is the only one.
A week ago, many well-respected members of the international legal community signed this petition calling for the creation of a new international tribunal modeled on the Nuremberg trials to investigate Russian President Vladimir Putin and his accomplices for their actions in the invasion of Ukraine. But hardly any of the signatories were prominent commercial lawyers. They were almost conspicuous in their absence.
At the other extreme, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan has been appointed counsel for Ukraine in inter-state proceedings against the Russian Federation at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. At the same time Covington & Burling is representing Ukraine in proceedings at the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ highest court.
None of these situations demonstrates a political stance on its own. But that is not the point. Largely thanks to the growth of social media, institutions such as law firms are under scrutiny like never before meaning that even if they remain silent on political issues their stance will be assumed by observers. These days, public statements are required to leave no doubt whatsoever where firms stand. They have to actually say they are anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-war.
What about anti-autocratic states?
In this interesting piece by Krishnan Nair–the world’s leading journalist on law firms’ response to the Ukraine war–we ask where Big Law may relocate lawyers and their work to, following the Moscow exodus. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are likely destinations, according to many partners. After all, the process of closing down in Russia will be far from straightforward, so it may help to have other regions lined up.
As one Middle East legal expert explains: “The other emerging economies provide an obvious landing ground for the lawyers, definitely energy, M&A and capital markets lawyers, who are willing to leave Russia to stay with their firms.”
But in building up in the Middle East, Krish’s piece asks, can firms really leave one autocratic state for another?
“Yes,” according to one partner at a U.S. firm. “They can. And they will. Imagine the scenario where, say, Kirkland [& Ellis] builds an office in Riyadh. Who would bat an eyelid? You might say, hey what about the terror [Saudi has] caused here and there, or point to their human rights record, or their treatment of women. But it would pass. Just as it has for the various corporates that are already there.”
As our Middle East correspondent Peter Shaw-Smith writes, there is even bemusement in the region at what is seen as the attempt by firms to display moral rectitude, given the exodus from Russia. One lawyer said: “The old notion that the only safe ethic for an advocate is that everyone has a right to have a case presented as honestly as it can be, no matter how much of a miscreant they’re accused of being, seems to have gone out of the window.”
And yet perhaps there are times when remaining apolitical should go out of the window. The case of Samuel Bickett reached a conclusion last week. You may remember him as the American lawyer and former anti-bribery compliance director at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch who was sentenced for assaulting a plainclothes police officer during the pro-democracy protests in 2019. He has said he has now been banned from Hong Kong after being released from prison.
But in a Twitter statement he was more political than ever, saying: “While I wasn’t born in Hong Kong, it has long been my home. Like many other Hongkongers, I have been forced to leave behind my loved ones and my city by an unelected government that, with open contempt for Hong Kong’s system of law and justice, has sought to destroy everything and everyone that makes our city exceptional.” He added he will “get to work exploring how I can best contribute to the fight for Hong Kong from abroad”
As much as firms would like to avoid taking political stances altogether there are some cases where they will take one whether they intend to or not. No one is actually questioning their legal independence, it is just an issue of how it looks from the outside. It’s about reputation. And these days there is no room on the fence to sit on.
US Results: The 20% Rule
We’re now well into the U.S. law firms’ results season. What have we learned?
No one will be surprised to discover 2021 was a record year, but just how good is it set to be?
Latham & Watkins’ revenue climbed 27% to almost $5.5 billion, setting off another race with Kirkland & Ellis. Covington & Burling and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe each managed 14% revenue growth.
Around 20% growth seems to be fairly standard. That was the ballpark increase at firms including: Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; Mayer Brown; Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Willkie Farr & Gallagher; Shearman & Sterling; King & Spalding; McDermott Will & Emery; Proskauer Rose; Winston & Strawn and White & Case.
Profits have also been impressive. Latham’s profits per equity partner increased 26% to $5.7 million. Covington, Orrick, Mayer Brown, King & Spalding, Cooley, McDermott, Proskauer and Winston all managed PEP increases of more than 20%, while PEP growth at each of Shearman, Dechert, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft and Baker McKenzie all surpassed even that.
All in all, a pretty exceptional year.
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