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Behind Cooley’s London Opening

June 12, 2015, 7:39 PM

In January, Cooley LLP made a move that caused heads to turn in the legal community: The Northern California technology law firm opened its first office in London, with a massive takeover of 55 attorneys from Morrison & Foerster, as well as Edwards Wildman.

The firm, founded in 1920 in San Francisco, is known for its work with tech and life sciences companies. Cooley chief executive officer Joe Conroy spoke to Big Law Business about what drove the firm’s decision to move to London, why it’s so difficult for U.S. firms to establish an office there, and what the future plans for Cooley are.

Interview Excerpts:

It wasn’t just to represent our domestic clients, but also to service an existing market opportunity there.

The opportunity to essentially grab the guts of an existing office of another law firm.... was a pretty unique opportunity....

We’ve been slow to hire associates because in this market it’s harder to hire associates. They have notice clauses there that US associates don’t have.

My own opinion is UK lawyers are more conservative and the best of those lawyers are less inclined to look seriously at US law firms no matter how fine they might be.

For us, particularly because it took us so long to get there, we clearly knew for the sake of what. For the sake of having a global presence. Being in London is the only way to continue to service the high-end needs of the client base that we have.

[caption id="attachment_2678" align="alignleft” width="170"][Image “Joe Conroy” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/conroy.jpg)]Joe Conroy[/caption]

Big Law Business: What were the macroeconomic trends that came into play for the London expansion?

Conroy: It was a result of multiple year conversations and the resulting commitment from the managing team of the law firm and in the partnership. It was aimed towards fulfilling this vision we have of being a truly global enterprise. We’re best known for our affinity for technology and life sciences industry, and frankly, the representation of high growth innovative companies.

Our model has been to do the most sophisticated litigation matters for those best clients, whether they be emerging growth companies or companies that have emerged. The reality is their business has been now for some years more global. For us to continue to represent at a high level the best of those companies out of our domestic client base, having the appropriate global footprint has been an imperative for us. We’ve had a presence in China, which has been slowly growing but for us, the next logical step was London. That’s sort of the imperative of Cooley getting to London.

There’s another piece of that. There are fast-growing emerging growth markets in technology and life sciences in London. London, as a market for big law firms, is not just a market for business in London or the UK, but it’s a proxy market because many deals that come out of European countries get lawyered through London. So it wasn’t just to represent our domestic clients, but also to service an existing market opportunity there.

Big Law Business: Was the expansion a strategic or singular opportunity?

Conroy: It was an extraordinarily unique opportunity that allowed us to get there in a very meaningful, very impactful way. The opportunity to essentially grab the guts of an existing office of another law firm, which was primarily contentious work and intellectual property work and all the infrastructure that came with that and also at the same time, put into that, a technology and life science focused corporate practice from another law firm. Put all of that together so you start seamlessly with an operation that’s servicing clients on day one with probably about 55 lawyers when we started. That was a pretty unique opportunity and it was by far the most compelling opportunity that we saw.

It was an extraordinarily unique opportunity that allowed us to get there in a very meaningful, very impactful way.

Big Law Business: You mentioned two law firms, can you explain that further?

Conroy: The original group was some of the legacy lawyers from Edwards Wildman [Palmer], which merged into Locke Lorde, but there was a legacy group of Edwards Wildman London. That was the continuous intellectual property practices, and then we grabbed a group of corporate lawyers out of MoFo [Morrison and Foerster] London offices. It was really putting those groups together was the deal.

Big Law Business: How big is the London office currently?

Conroy: We’ve been slow to hire associates because in this market it’s harder to hire associates. They have notice clauses there that US associates don’t have. I’m not exactly sure of the associate number but we’ve added lateral partners including John Wilkinson and Nicola Mcguire who came from Reed Smith in London have preeminent European life sciences transactional practice. We also have a private equity and tax partner from Olswang who is currently in their notice period. We’re actively recruiting in the market. The reaction of the lateral market has been even stronger than the most optimistic of us would have hoped. I think it’s distinctive. If you have a practice there, and you want to be with a premiere law firm, we’re not the only game in town, but we’re standing there in the front of that list.

We have been focused all along on how tough a market London is. It has been a really tough market for US firms to penetrate and penetrate well. It’s really crowded and it’s got some of the best lawyers and best law firms are there. For us, we had the competitive advantage of having something pretty easily distinguishable and differentiated from what other US law firms have done there and frankly what other law firms in the market have done.

[caption id="attachment_2677" align="alignleft” width="640"][Image “https://www.flickr.com/photos/augustbrill/5704049580/in/photolist-9G3Kdq-7B2GHA-7H7fHv-eai2wz-8QeEeS-ea2jy1-cVq3vb-pyTKeZ-iwqUu1-gZ7DTe-pakrwd-4tcBWN-ejZeEJ-g9hgky-cxrKz3-4yfyJV-ideKi2-p39arT-hADBYa-rickmX-pCSt4K-nxrBCd-hAE6NE-5SmuMo-diVmDg-nmmxGh-cEV5e5-4ZTejg-qhALa3-np344N-qoSFZm-edjtvy-i6tSP8-hedJCD-dhqvAN-pMPAnz-stgaiL-jMikDV-svTNxK-8oD1X7-3gbCze-t8EFKD-8JkBvE-t5ods1-hAzJxv-hAzZ9z-b6cGVk-2Ttgio-8hJr92-jwzuGq” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/5704049580_d0949c4a57_z.jpg)]Photo by August Brill (Flickr/Creative Commons)[/caption]

Big Law Business: What kind of work does the London office do?

Conroy: It was important for us to have a broad offering to begin with. So on day one, in addition to this broad corporate capability, which was corporate finance and a capital markets, all of the standard corporate stuff, we had a very broad based contentious high-end litigation practice there, we had intellectual property practice there, we had this high-end insurance litigation and regulatory practice there, so we more or less started off with a full service office. We look at it in terms of having broad capabilities on both the business-litigation side of the house.

Big Law Business: How does this fit into the firm’s overall history?

Conroy: The firm was started in 1920. The firm existed in one way as a fine San Francisco firm, and then at the dawn of this thing called Silicon Valley, the pioneers went down, and we became known as a Valley firm. We formed the first institutional venture fund. It had a long history in the 50s with the venture business. And then we were huge in life sciences and we formed Genentech. The firm grew quite rapidly but at some point in time in the early 2000s, post the dot-com crash, the firm decided that it really needed to be on this path of not just being a tech firm but being an elite firm and everything came with that.

We went about the notion of building muscular presences in places that we hadn’t been. We built out a robust network on the East Coast. We did a big deal last year in Washington [DC] to build in regulatory practices. We got a robust New York office. All of those geographical expansions were designed to develop elite practice capabilities. To have a firm that was broad enough to have elite financials and to be able to do the best work for the best kind of Cooley clients. In that way, London was a very logical step. For us, it was probably one of the most important things we have ever done because of how difficult getting into London in the right way is for a US firm. What a commitment it meant from the Cooley partnership to do it because it’s a very conservative partnership and a partnership that takes these expansions very, very seriously.

Big Law Business: Can you explain why it’s so difficult for US firms to get into the London market?

Conroy: There are a number of reasons. It’s a crowded, tough market with great law firms competing there already. So, it’s the first or second toughest legal market in the world, New York and London.

Secondly, my own opinion is UK lawyers are more conservative and the best of those lawyers are less inclined to look seriously at US law firms no matter how fine they might be. They certainly have looked at US law firms with a jaundiced eye. That in part is due to a perception in that market. I know because I’ve been recruiting in that market. The perception is that many US law firms have come and set up shop and haven’t treated those as part of the firm. They’ve become outposts, they’ve become silos. They haven’t really had the care and feeding they’ve needed to become a part of an integrated firm.

They certainly have looked at US law firms with a jaundiced eye.

That for us was very instrumental in thinking, in selecting the team that we were going to select, and thinking through how we would support the office once we put it on the ground. We did things I don’t think other law firms have done, like right off the bat, there are London partners on our most important committees, like our management committee, which governs our firm. There are two London lawyers on our compensation committee. So we took steps to overcome that.

The other big reason it’s been difficult is because firms haven’t always stopped to ask them the question, “For the sake of what? For the sake of what are we going there?” Sometimes the answer is, you gotta be in London. Okay, London is an important market. I get it. But for us, particularly because it took us so long to get there, we clearly knew for the sake of what. For the sake of having a global presence. Being in London is the only way to continue to service the high-end needs of the client base that we have. It was a very clear extrapolation of our business model. On day one if the phone rang in London and it was a partner in Palo Alto asking, “Can you help?” and on day two, if the phone rings in New York, and it’s a London partner calling asking, “Can you help?” That’s a sign of integration. With this group it has worked out well for us so far.

Big Law Business: How do you see the future of the London office as well as the firm?

Conroy: Long term, the firm will need a bigger presence in Europe. What that means, we’ll figure out over time. What we’re focusing on right now is not only building out London in the right way but continuing to build in the principally important East Coast markets where we’ve built over the last few years, New York and Washington. More than just building in those markets, attention to stitching together these power centers, Silicon Valley, the finance center in New York, the regulatory center in Washington DC and London. Stitching that together so that we have the most robust offering of services to continue to represent the best emerging and emerged client base.

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