As the one-year anniversary of the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner merger approaches, it has become clear that in Asia the merger has not gone according to plan.
The jury is still out on whether the overall merger, which took effect last April, can be considered a success. But in Asia it has, for all intents and purposes, failed.
In Shanghai, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner lost its entire staff earlier this week when all seven professionals resigned. They had all originally come from Bryan Cave.
In November, the Hong Kong team that had come from Bryan Cave also said it was splitting off from the merged firm.
In other words, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s Asia operations are now no different from what they were before the merger. They are more or less identical to the operations of Berwin Leighton Paisner. Bryan Cave’s legacy Asia offices were not successfully integrated into the merged firm.
But that wasn’t the plan.
At the time of the merger, all five Asian offices, including both legacy Hong Kong offices, Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Beijing and Singapore offices, and Bryan Cave’s Shanghai office, were supposed to integrate into the new Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, according to a source familiar with the merger discussions.
That was still the case as recently as September, when the firm announced that the Law Society of Hong Kong had granted approval for the two legacy offices to operate under the combined Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner brand. In addition, Andrew MacGeoch, the managing partner for Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s Hong Kong and Singapore offices, told The Asian Lawyer in September that the firm also intended to integrate the Beijing and Shanghai offices, pending regulatory approvals in China. “This will take four to six weeks,” MacGeoch said.
What happened next was not expected.
The Hong Kong merger fell apart first. In November, only two months after officially combining with the legacy Berwin Leighton Paisner team, The Asian Lawyer reported that former Bryan Cave Hong Kong partners Kristi Swartz and Nigel Binnersley would soon leave and start their own practice.
Swartz, who served as Bryan Cave’s Hong Kong managing partner, said she and Binnersley left because of a lack of synergy in their practices with the Berwin Leighton Paisner team. Swartz, who wanted to build her firm around the fintech industry, saw little compatibility with Berwin Leighton Paisner Hong Kong’s strength in aircraft finance and real estate.
“We felt it would be a better opportunity for us to venture out on our own rather than compete for resources internally,” said Swartz, adding that her firm works with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner on some client matters and receives referrals.
Berwin Leighton Paisner’s office location, which would also be home to the merged Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, also created conflict. It was based in Quarry Bay, an emerging business district further east of the area known as Central, where most global law firms and banks are based. Some firms have been attracted to Quarry Bay because of its cheaper rent and bigger space. But Swartz, whose office at legacy Bryan Cave was in Central, saw a potential office move as detrimental to her work.
“Both Nigel’s and my clients are based in Central. Being located in Central makes the most business sense for our practices as we have easy access to clients, barristers chambers, regulatory bodies and the courts,” she said.
Swartz maintains that her split from Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner was amicable. Before leaving the firm in December, she said she worked alongside legacy Bryan Cave on a transition timeline that would allow her to start her own practice and allow Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s business to continue operating.
The best-laid plans
The defections in Shanghai were more surprising, according to the source close to the negotiations. Partners of legacy Berwin Leighton Paisner were keen to keep Bryan Cave’s Shanghai office as it added a new location to their existing Asian offices, said the source. Most of the discussion regarding future plans for the Shanghai office was done via two U.S.-based partners – the head of the firm’s China practice, Evan Chuck, and the firm’s Asia coordinator, Nicole Simonian.
But both Chuck and Simonian have now decided to leave after 14 years with Bryan Cave to join Crowell & Moring. Their move followed that of former Bryan Cave partner David Stepp, who jumped to Crowell & Moring in August 2018. The three have worked together for more than two decades.
A Chicago-based spokesperson for Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner confirmed that lawyers and consultants in the Shanghai office decided to follow Chuck and Simonian, but did not comment on future plans for Shanghai. At time of publication, the regulatory proceedings to integrate the Beijing and Shanghai offices are not complete.
Even before the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner merger, Berwin Leighton Paisner and Bryan Cave had both discovered that operating in Asia was not easy. In February 2018, legacy Berwin Leighton Paisner closed its office in Myanmar – less than two and a half years after launching an office there. Legacy Bryan Cave closed its Singapore office in 2017.
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s Chicago-based spokesperson maintained that today, the firm retains a “strong presence” in Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore. It has nearly 80 fee-earners and the legal team advises on cross-border transactions and matters across Asia, the spokesperson said.
But when asked to comment for this story about the merger of the two legacy firms in Asia, the firm declined.