UK - Law Firms King & Spalding's London Office: The Right Opportunity And The Right Strategy

Saturday, January 1, 2005 - 01:00
George S. Branch

Editor: Would tell our readers something about your background?

Branch: Following Yale, I went to the University of Virginia Law School, graduating in 1974. From law school I joined King & Spalding in Atlanta and five years later moved to Washington, DC to help open the firm's first office outside of Atlanta. The Washington office boasted three lawyers to start, and it now has a complement of 110. It is also doing extremely well.

Over the course of 30 years at King & Spalding I have been engaged in a great many things, including helping to build the firm's relationship with Texaco. That resulted in Texaco coming to us in the mid-90s and asking us to open a King & Spalding office in Houston. That was originally a litigation office, and it has grown to some 75 to 80 lawyers and still includes today representing Chevron Texaco, the merged company, among other good clients.

Editor: Can you tell us about the evolution of King & Spalding over your 30-year career?

Branch: When I joined the firm in 1974, it was identified solely with Atlanta. I was the 70th lawyer. Today, we have offices in New York, Washington, Houston and London as well, and roughly half our lawyers are in our non- Atlanta offices. All told, there are almost 800 lawyers as of today. In the course of this evolution, the firm began to serve clients beyond Atlanta and the Southeast and, in time, became a national law and then international firm. Much of the credit for the firm's development is due to Griffin Bell, who joined the firm after 15 years on the Fifth Circuit and then rejoined in 1979 after having served as United States Attorney General under President Carter. He is a great lawyer and person and has been instrumental in propelling us onto the national scene. Another reason for the firm's growth over the years relates to its responsiveness to client needs. The Washington office was opened at the request of The Coca-Cola Company, which asked us to represent them on their Food and Drug Administration matters, and, as I mentioned, the Houston office was opened in response to a direct request from Texaco. In addition, we began to recruit an interesting group of lawyers with diverse practices. The head of the firm's international trade practice in Washington, for example, has provided us with an extremely successful practice in that area, including active dockets with the World Trade Organization, the European Union and NAFTA. These are not practices we would have given much thought to in an earlier era.

When I joined King & Spalding in 1974 there were four or five firms in Atlanta pretty much on a par with what seemed to me to be roughly similar strategies built around different clients. Since then, they have pursued different agendas and priorities, and some mergers have redefined that market. In our case, a combination of the right opportunities and a concerted effort to work out the appropriate places in which to invest and the right strategies to pursue once invested has been a great success.

Editor: Speaking of opportunities, in 2002 you moved to London to start the firm's London office. Could you share with us the factors that went into starting a London office?

Branch: A London office had been on our agenda for some ten years prior to our taking this step. We were pretty thorough in our deliberations. By 2002 there were, by my count, over a hundred American law firms already present in London, and the city was and remains both a very competitive and very expensive environment. For starters, a London-based practice must have a very strong basis in the areas of private equity, corporate finance, and M&A. The firm asked me - a litigator, someone without a dog in that particular fight - to take an objective look at the London market and report back. I spent five or six months doing so by interviewing clients accountants, law firm consultants, lawyers in practice there and, most importantly, talking to my partners about taking the franchise to London and gauging their support for such a major and potentially long-term undertaking. Having built a strong energy practice in Houston, we concluded that we had an additional rationale outside our more traditional corporate practices for building a strong international corporate, corporate finance and trade practice in London, provided we had the right people in place.

On January 3, 2003 we opened the office with six American lawyers focusing on global energy. Islamic finance, M&A/private equity, international trade, and arbitration. Today the number is up to 17, and they come to us from some 11 different jurisdictions, and they are qualified in the UK or in British Commonwealth countries. This gives us, and our clients, considerable depth and on-the-ground support for the international work that we had staffed beforehand out of our U.S. offices or referred to other firms.

Editor: The firm's International Trade group is headquartered in Washington and in London. How is the work divided between the two offices?

Branch: There is no formal division of labor between the Washington and London offices. The group operates as a single, cohesive unit. In a general sense, I would say the London office tends to focus on EU, Chinese, and World Trade Organization trade remedy matters and on advising clients - often European corporations or the European subsidiaries of American corporations - with respect to trade compliance issues, such as export control laws, customs laws, Foreign Corrupt Practice Act compliance, and so on. The two offices are mutually supportive, and there is a great deal of back-and-forth between them. This is consistent with our goal as to all our offices and practice groups; that is, to maintain a cohesive firm through cross-office staffing rather than work in geographically independent practice pods.

Editor: What types of cases does the group handle?

Branch: In the European Union, we have anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases underway and judicial appeals that involve steel, plastics, chemicals, and - on the higher technology front - DRAMs, a type of semi-conductor. In the more recent cases, we are representing the complainants, the local industry injured by dumped or subsidized imports, normally from Asia. In the U.S. we have a wide range of similar anti-dumping and trade remedy cases, and we also normally represent the complainants, who also claim that they have been unfairly damaged by foreign manufacturers dumping or subsidizing their imports into the U.S. For example, the group succeeded recently in representing U.S. furniture manufacturers in the largest ever U.S. anti-dumping case against China, I hasten to add, we also represent respondents in European, Chinese, and Mexican cases as well, often defending dumping allegations against U.S. companies.

We also handle Section 337 cases within the U.S. This involves complex litigation before the U.S. International Trade Commission on alleged infringements of U.S. intellectual property rights.

We have a number of WTO dispute settlement cases underway at the moment. Before NAFTA, we have cases involving cement, cookware and magnesium.

We are also handling a significant number of compliance cases under U.S., UK., and EU laws and regulations on export controls, customs, embargo, anti-bribery, data protection, corporate governance, and so on. Much of this work arises in a due diligence context, where an American client might be acquiring a European company and needs to determine in advance whether any of the target company's activities raise potential issues under these trade laws and regulations.

Editor: You alluded earlier to the ability of the London office to draw upon the personnel and resources of the U.S. offices, and vice versa. What about relationships with other offices?

Branch: One of the points I insisted on before going forward with a London presence was buy-in from the firm's senior leadership in key practice areas. By this, I meant a commitment on the part of practice group leaders, including international trade, antitrust/competition, private equity, global transactions and Islamic finance, to spend a substantial amount of time in London to help start our practices here. They willingly made that commitment, and they have lived up to it since we opened. This continuing interplay between offices also makes the practice of law in London all the more enjoyable for our London lawyers.

Editor: As head of the London office. are there any particular challenges in the hiring or retention of personnel or cultural issues that you have had to address?

Branch: As I indicated, there are more than a hundred American law firms in London, and they tend to be looking for the same kinds of practitioners - corporate finance, M&A, private equity, and so on. The competition is pretty stiff. There is a perception that American law firms are very different from their English counterparts and that the former are sweatshops, King & Spalding is not, but getting across our particular culture and how we, as a law firm, operate requires time and patience. What we try to do is convey the emphasis we place on meeting clients' needs, our goal to build an international franchise rather than simply serve our U.S. offices, and the value we accord consensus in all aspects of the partnership. Most everywhere we have opened a new office, it has been done in response to a perceived client need, and it has proceeded only on the basis of full partnership support. The consequence, of course, is that the resulting London office is a full contributing member of the overall enterprise and is universally supported. This is a very positive aspect of our law firm. Getting that across to the personnel you are trying to recruit can be a challenge. We try to be very careful in our recruitment. We want lawyers who understand and appreciate what we are trying to do and be.

Editor: Where would you like the London office to be in. say. five years?

Branch: I would say that we ought to be somewhere around 40-50 lawyers within that period. At the moment, we are in the investment stage, which entails considerable growth. We are still looking for the right people in a number of areas, including finance and tax and arbitration. Once a certain critical mass is reached, however - that point at which the office has the capacity to handle all types of work we seek to handle here - the focus will shift to greater utilization within the office itself. At that point the growth that has accelerated so rapidly will begin to slow. We are certainly not to that point yet, but that is the pattern we have seen elsewhere, and I think it is going to hold true in London. So far, we are ahead of our initial projections, but we are still focused and will remain so until we have built out our international capacity.

Editor: And where do you see yourself in five years?

Branch: I will likely return to King & Spalding in the U.S. in another year. By that point, we will have established practices in London, be housed in new offices near St. Paul's with a long-term lease that can accommodate our growth, and have in place a team of able lawyers that is more than self-sufficient without me. Frankly, we are already at that point. In another year, it will probably be time to turn the management over to others and move on.

Editor: Is there anything you'd like to add?

Branch: Nothing other than to reiterate that I have seen law firms and the practice of law change dramatically over the course of my 30 year career at King & Spalding. Observing the evolution in the legal market, I think it is possible for a firm to become too large, too unwieldy, and too culturally diffuse. A firm that tries to be everywhere and do everything can lose focus, I think, along with its profitability and cohesion. In seeking to remain focused on building an international capacity, we will remain responsive to the needs of our clients wherever they may be but still committed to our consensus-driven approach that has blessed us as we enter our second century with considerable success. We need to stay that course. and we will do so.

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