UK - Law Firms As Globalization Accelerates, A London Office Takes Center Stage

Sunday, January 1, 2006 - 01:00
John L. Keffer

Editor: Mr. Keffer, please tell our readers something about your background and career.

Keffer: I was born in Havana. I left Cuba with my family in 1960, about 18 months after Fidel Castro's arrival. Like many Cubans, we spent a couple of years in Miami. My father worked for Exxon, and he was transferred to Caracas, where I spent most of my formative years. Caracas was my home between the ages of four and fifteen, and I grew up feeling very Venezuelan, not American. The United States - the land of color television - was where I went with my mother once a year. My father was again transferred - this time to London in 1973. Because under the laws then in place I would lose my American citizenship at the age of 18 if I did not spend time in the U.S., it was decided that I should go to boarding school in Pennsylvania.

Following the Hill School, I attended Georgetown University in Washington DC and then went on to Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas. From law school I went on to begin my legal career with Bracewell & Patterson, a firm in Houston which today is called Bracewell & Giuliani. I spent 15 years there and came to specialize in corporate law, with a particular emphasis on mergers and acquisitions.

In 1998, King & Spalding expressed an interest in my joining their newly opened Houston office as the second corporate partner, an opportunity I felt I could not let pass. Then in December of 2002 I left the Houston office to help the firm open its London office, together with five other lawyers. Since opening our doors in January of 2003, we have grown to an office of 20 lawyers. Additional growth is anticipated. It is an exciting time to be the partner-in-charge of the firm's London office.

Editor: Would you share with us the factors that went into your decision to join King & Spalding? What attracted you to the firm?

Keffer: The things that attracted me are those that attract most of the laterals that join: the opportunity to practice with a leading national, and now international, firm with a reputation for very high-quality work and some of the world's leading corporations as clients, for starters. The firm has a long history as well, and the stability that derives from continued success over a long period of time is a very attractive feature. Finally, there is a culture that is Southern and perhaps a little more refined than one finds in a law firm run strictly by the numbers. I find the atmosphere of King & Spalding very appealing.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice. How has it evolved over the course of your career?

Keffer: As a young corporate lawyer I had an exposure to just about everything one encounters in the corporate world. That might entail working on an M&A deal one week, an IPO the next week and juggling a corporate governance issue in between. During the early years of my career I gained very broad experience in all aspects of corporate law. As my career progressed, my practice became increasingly focused on Latin America, which was a natural evolution for someone with my background. I began to represent an increasing number of U.S. clients seeking to invest and operate in Latin America, and much of my work came to involve acquisitions of Latin American enterprises by U.S. investors and joint ventures between U.S. and Latin American companies. In time, I became the head of the firm's Latin American Practice Group in Houston, which, because of its location, is a natural site for such a responsibility. The move to London, accordingly, has given me an opportunity to refocus my practice. Today I am more engaged in assisting U.S. clients with business in the UK and Europe. This represents an exciting new stage in my career, one which builds upon what I have done in the past but which is going in a new direction.

Editor: The firm's London office dates from January 2003. Please tell us about the development of the office over the past three years.

Keffer: The official opening of the London office in January of 2003 followed a year of very thorough due diligence on the part of my predecessor, George Branch. He was asked to determine what it meant to have an office in this market, and he went about this exercise in a very careful way, including speaking to a number of King & Spalding clients with something of an interest in the firm having a London office. On the basis of George's efforts, we opened the office with an emphasis on King & Spalding strengths: a transactional corporate practice of mergers and acquisitions and private equity, energy, finance - with an emphasis on Islamic finance - and international arbitration. We arrived with six American lawyers, and one of the first things we did was to recruit a number of English lawyers to complement our identified core strengths Charlie Alexander joined us for our M&A and private equity practices, Susan Beck joined us for our energy practice, and most recently Scott Samuel joined us to complement our finance practice, together with Anthony Wilson for our international arbitration practice. To assist these partners and counsel we have added a considerable number of talented associates, all of whom are English law qualified, as well.

Editor: The London office is not, then, a kind of branch office afterthought of an American firm with an essentially American practice.

Keffer: Not at all. We have determined that this office must have an English law component in order to serve the firm's clients. To this end, we are practicing English law to assist our clients with matters in the UK, in Europe, in the Middle East and beyond.

The basic mission of the London office is to provide clients, both longstanding clients of the firm and those drawn to the London office because of its location and specific skills, with the same high quality of service and efficiency that King & Spalding has always provided at all of its locations. We are very conscious of the high standards expected of us.

Editor: How do you go about staffing a project that originates with the London office but requires the assistance of the firm's other offices?

Keffer: Under King & Spalding's model, we are one firm with multiple locations. Our expertise resides at a variety of these locations, and we draw upon it as and when the need arises. There is simply no problem in calling upon expertise and personnel residing at several offices to deal with a matter, and, in fact, given the complexity and sophistication of the firm's practice overall, that is pretty much the way we operate all the time. The London office is truly at the center of a global practice.

Editor: You mentioned clients. The clients served by the London office are both King & Spalding clients and a clientele that the office itself is developing?

Keffer: Yes. We are engaged in serving both types of client. The group that was instrumental in the opening of the office consisted of firm clients, for the most part U.S. corporations, with an increasing UK, European or global - and sometimes all three - interest. Over the past three years, however, as a consequence of a growing English qualified staff, people with clients and contacts of their own, we have begun to develop a group of clients who come to us for reasons having to do with our location and what we do here. Of course, those clients are also the beneficiaries of the expertise residing in other King & Spalding offices. As a consequence of this diverse client base, the variety of the projects we are handling is extensive. On just incoming investment, we are dealing with U.S. clients seeking to invest in the UK, and we are also dealing with European and Middle Eastern clients with such interests. The latter, of course, represent opportunities we would not have had in the absence of a London office.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about globalization? What has the emergence of a global economy meant to King & Spalding? And to the London office?

Keffer: London is well situated to serving not only the European market but also the Middle Eastern and African markets. It is a natural jumping off point for a variety of destinations, and clients look to us to assist them with deals in a great many areas, both developed and emerging. We do not have offices in all of the jurisdictions where these transactions take us - under the King & Spalding model we try to avoid making ourselves too thin on the ground - but we do have close relationships with firms in those jurisdictions, and we are able to provide seamless service to an increasingly global group of clients. The firm has been the beneficiary of globalization in recent years, and the London office is both a consequence of that development and one of the principal driving forces behind its continuing acceleration.

Editor: What do you see for the future? Where are the growth areas for the London office?

Keffer: The London office will continue to grow in response to the needs of the firm's clients. We will add lawyers and practices in a deliberate and measured way - and always with an eye to a perceived client need - provided there are synergies with the firm's other offices. Robert Hays, the firm's new chairman, has expressed a great deal of enthusiasm about the opportunities before the firm as a whole, and I am very glad to say that the London operation anticipates being at the center of many of those opportunities.

Please email the interviewee at with questions about this interview.

More like this